A report by the House of Commons Justice Committee has criticised the Government’s “lack of progress” towards its stated aim of reducing the number of women in prison in England and Wales.
The ‘Women in Prison’ report examined progress made towards the government’s strategic aims to reduce female offending, reduce the number of women in prison and improve conditions in custody. The report’s authors expressed concern at the limited success in relation to the objectives set out in the Female Offender Strategy, saying that the programme “has lacked the investment needed to make the aims of the strategy achievable in reality”.
MoJ falling short of ‘Female Offender Strategy’ aims
In 2007, ‘The Corston Report‘ concluded that “the nature of women’s custody in many of our prisons needs to be radically rethought”.
11 years later, the Ministry of Justice published its ‘Female Offender Strategy‘, which recognised that “many offenders are amongst the most vulnerable people in society”, and that coming into custody “can undermine the ability of women to address the issues that have caused their offending”. The strategy set out a vision to reduce prison numbers and improve conditions for those inside.
As the Justice Committee report notes, the ‘Female Offender Strategy’ set out three strategic priorities: fewer women coming into the criminal justice system; fewer women in custody (especially on short-term sentences); a greater proportion of women managed in the community successfully and better conditions for those in custody.
Diverting women from prison
2019 figures showed that 82 percent of women in prison had committed a non-violent offence. About 12,000 women are sent to prison in the UK every year, a figure which has approximately doubled over the last twenty years. The average sentence is just 11.3 months.
Whilst there has been a 16 percent reduction in the number of women in prison over the last three years, ‘Women in Prison‘ notes that this is “likely to be a result of the Covid-19 pandemic”, which reduced opportunities for some types of crime and significantly reduced court activity. The report also explains that this reduction is likely to be wiped out in the next three years, as “the MoJ itself now predicts an increase in the female population by more than a third”.
The MoJ’s latest projection predicts that the number of women in prison in England and Wales will rise by 40 percent from 2020 to 2026. 500 new prison places for women are being built, in a move strongly opposed by many charities and campaigners. The report calls for “greater clarity” on the proposed 500 new prison places for women, asking the Ministry of Justice and Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service to set out the modelling that they used to “determine that 500 places were needed”.
The report recommends improved use of “out of court disposals” to divert women from custody, suggesting that the Government should “set out how it will prioritise gender-specific diversionary routes”.
It also calls for greater use of community sentences, and a timeline for the development of four planned Residential Women’s Centres, in addition to the one already announced for Swansea. The report notes that many witnesses raised concerns at how the “untested” Residential Women’s Centre model will function, and that it may divert funding away from existing Women’s Centres.
Charity leaders unimpressed
Campbell Robb, Nacro chief executive, said: “Women should not be in prison, except in the most serious of cases. The Government knows this and yet admits that their own failings will see the number of women in prison rise drastically by 2025. The lack of commitment is worrying, from poor data collection to a lack of measurable change in policy and plans to expand the female prison estate. These women deserve more, and soon.”
Peter Dawson, director of Prison Reform Trust, called the report’s findings “disappointing”. He said: “The only substantial investment the government has promised since its female offender strategy was published in 2018 is £150m to build 500 additional prison places for women. But the strategy’s declared aim was to reduce the number of women in custody, not increase it. If it wants to be taken seriously, the government must now invest in supporting women in the community, not building more prison cells for them.”
Prison causing harm to women and their children
Rates of self-harm are over six times higher among women in prison than among men – in 2021, there were 3697 incidents per 1000 female prisoners, as opposed to 561 incidents for men. ‘Women in Prison’ notes the “alarming” 4 percent rise in self-harm incidents among women in prison in 2021.
Over half of women in prisons in England and Wales are thought to be victims of domestic violence, and the true proportion may well be far greater. One study by the Disabilities Trust found that 64 percent of female prisoners examined had a history indicative of brain injury, and that, for most, this was caused by domestic violence. About half of women in prison committed their offence to support someone else’s drug use.
Two-thirds of women in prison are mothers, and at least a third of these are single parents. An estimated 17,000 children are separated from their mothers by imprisonment every year. Just 5 percent of children remain in their own home once their mother has been sentenced.