Clarke asleep on the job of real prison reform

It took the coalition government five months to respond to Baroness Corston’s follow up report on women in the penal system, only to flatly reject its calls.

Ken Clarke

By Sophie Willett of The Howard League for Penal Reform

It took the coalition government five months to respond to Baroness Corston’s follow-up report on women in the penal system, only to flatly reject the call to speed up the closure of women’s prisons, and also choosing to ignore demands to appoint a “women’s justice champion” within the justice department that would focus on the specific interventions needed to turn women’s lives around.

The last government had a target to reduce the number of women in prison by 400 by March 2012.  The coalition appears to have dropped this target, which is odd when you consider that Kenneth Clarke’s green paper aims to reduce the overall prison population by 3,000.

ou would think a contribution of 400 women to this objective would be welcomed by ministers, given that 63% of women are in prison for non-violent offences, compared with 45% of men.

A network of pioneering centres – one stop shops- set up over the past couple of years, overhauled the way women were treated by the criminal justice system. The strength of these one stop shops lay in their ability to manage the many different needs of women in the criminal justice system.

Not only were women diverted from custody meaning that families could stay together, they were also able to attend to the social needs that can contribute to offending, such as debt problems, addictions and mental health problems.

These one stop shops produced impressively low re-offending rates; some as low as 3% compared to 54% for those released from prison or having completed custodial sentences. The centres also represented a much cheaper and more effective way of dealing with female offenders. It costs, on average, about £54,000 to keep a woman in prison for a year compared with between £10,000-15,000 for a community order.

And while the government has provided some money to keep these women’s centres open past their previous funding settlement, Crispin Blunt, the Prisons minister, made clear that the Justice Ministry contribution was a “one-off”.

Even as it stands, charitable trusts were required to match the government funding to keep the centres open. Welcome as this was in keeping the initiative alive, it does raise questions as to what the proper role of the voluntary sector is, and whether government is right to expect charitable trusts to stump up for what is rightly the responsibility of the state.

I visited a women’s prison a couple of weeks ago. Most of the women were in there for fraud and drug offences. One of the residential managers made a casual observation that struck a chord with me:

“Many of the women in here”, he said, “were caught up in terrible lifestyles at home and committed offences for the benefit of men.  At least their spell in prison gives them respite from their pimps, dealers and abusive boyfriends.”

Do we really need to lock up poor, mentally ill, disadvantaged women to keep them from exploitation? A high proportion of women in prison have been victims of sexual, emotional and physical abuse in childhood continuing into adulthood. Many have acute alcohol and drug dependencies.

Most are suffering from untreated depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other mental disorders: according to the Ministry of Justice, up to 80% of women in the penal system have diagnosable mental health problems, and 66% suffer from neurotic disorders. Baroness Corston’s report describes a ten-day period in one prison during which, one woman pushed a needle deep into a self-inflicted wound, requiring surgery; another woman lost dangerous amounts of blood as a result of self-harm, while another set fire to herself and her bedding.

This isn’t making excuses for people’s behaviour and nor is it a ‘get out of jail free’ card. It is simply recognising that there is a more effective way of dealing with people who offend through targeted interventions. It is an appeal for sensible policy decisions that are based on facts. Let’s do what we know makes society safer.

Sending women to costly prisons simply serves to exacerbate problems and will most likely lead to more serious and frequent re-offending on release. The idea that public protection is served by this vicious circle is not one many victims of crime would recognise.

The government must continue to divert women from custody into supportive, effective centres that get to the heart of offending behaviour. Women who are fleeing domestic violence, who have drug or alcohol addictions or mental health problems, will end up going to prison unnecessarily, and won’t get the help they need.

And it will end up being far more expensive for the government in the long run.

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