Most women prisoners have committed non-violent crimes. On being released, many want to start new lives but get little or no support. In 2008, that was all supposed to change. Yet today there is anger and frustration at lack of action, and the destructive potential of cutbacks
Lily, aged 25, is the youngest of four siblings. The family moved often to refuges, in flight from a violent father. At 13, Lily stopped going to school, began to drift and drink, became addicted to crack cocaine, and lived with an abusive, drug-addled boyfriend. At 21, she attacked a woman, her only crime. She served three years and now, recently released on licence, reflective and bright, she is desperately seeking to make amends and to begin again. Her aim is to become a midwife.
She has been clean of drugs for two years. The terms of her licence mean she cannot share accommodation; she is not yet entitled to a hostel place or eligible for housing benefit and her wages are too low to pay rent and survive. The option is a volatile night shelter, 8pm-6am, limited to a three-week stay. “After that, under my licence, if I become homeless,” she says bleakly, “I go back to prison.”
Lily shares many of the characteristics of the female prison population. These include addiction, mental health issues, chronic debt and domestic violence. Self-hatred is exacerbated by a prison system designed for men.
“These women have already been let down once by society. The way the penal system works, we are setting them up to fail again,” says Rachel Halford, director of Women in Prison (Wip).
“Eighty per cent are inside for non-violent offences – shoplifting, non-payment of fines, breaching bail. Many serve short sentences. On release, they wait weeks for their benefits, are often deemed intentionally homeless by removing themselves to prison and therefore can’t get a job or their children returned from care. Six out of 10 women on short sentences reoffend. In 2008, that was all supposed to change.”
A year earlier, following six suicides in HMP Styal in Cheshire, Baroness [Jean] Corston conducted a review of the treatment of vulnerable women in the penal establishment. She made 43 recommendations, including an end to the use of prisons except for the tiny minority (under 4%) who have committed serious crimes and are a danger to the public, a policy now adopted in Scotland and Northern Ireland. She advocated holistic help, tailored to the individual, via women’s centres in the community. Forty of her 43 recommendations received cross-party support.
Liz Hogarth, previously head of the Ministry of Justice’s women’s strategy unit, helped to implement the Corston agenda under the Labour government.
In the ministry now, she says, that strategy team is no more, the inter-ministerial group is axed, a proposed women’s justice board has yet to materialise, accountability to parliament on progress has ceased, leadership is weak, funding is short term – and the fragile network of community support is under threat.
This week the justice secretary, Chris Grayling, launches a series of oral consultations on his own proposals, Transforming Rehabilitation. Reforms include support after short-term sentences, increased competition, mentoring, payment by results for reducing offending and greater private sector involvement. What he will hear over the coming weeks from Corston and others in the field is disillusionment, anger, and frustration and scepticism that the private sector has a holistic approach or an interest in vulnerable women.
In addition, funding on women’s community projects is not protected, so a number of Britain’s 31 women’s centres may close in March and services may be cut. Even though several bills are going through parliament that underline the specific needs of female offenders, and the Prison Reform Trust is examining how to reduce the female prison population, magistrates will still have a hard job seeking alternatives to remand and custody.
The Pankhurst Centre in Manchester is one such alternative. It is the home of WomenMatta (Manchester and Trafford Taking Action) run by Women in Prison, working closely with agencies such as probation, police, social services and magistrates. Wip’s services include advice and support in prisons; help after sentence and release and – not addressed in Transforming Rehabilitation – working with those at risk of offending.
Diane, 44, was in care, had a violent partner, took drugs for more than two decades and served three months in three prisons for shoplifting. “She wouldn’t say a word when she first came,” says volunteer Martina Cribbens, “Now we can’t shut her up.”
When Diane arrived from an emergency hostel she was ill, without help and profoundly depressed. Today, she is clean, active in Wip, and last Tuesday received good news. Visits from her 13-year-old daughter, in foster care, will increase from six to 10 a year. “That’s my aim, to get her back,” Diane says.
Pat, 53, timidly shows her wounds, inflicted by loan sharks. Her former husband was a gambler who, again and again, borrowed in her name. Sharks delivered beatings. In desperation, she robbed a bank in her street. Then robbed again. A total of £88,000 was handed to loan sharks. On the third occasion, Pat burst into tears in the TSB. “I wanted to get caught. I needed to get away from him and them.”
She served three years of a six-year sentence. After release, she became a recluse with anxiety attacks. Now, she says, she is transformed. “I’m even going to a christening on Sunday!”
Zoey, Ellen, Helen – each has her own powerful story of rekindled aspirations. Martina, who attended university as a mature student, says: “I tell the women that they can take away your freedom, your children, your house and your job, but that they can’t take away an education.”
“These are chaotic women who have the police at the door every night, an old fridge in their garden, and are hated by neighbours,” says Katie Fraser. “We help them to become a positive part of their own community, to build a life.”
In the Wip offices in Surrey, outreach worker Kate Johnson has, over time, steered Lily through a dozen agencies, negotiated with probation and finally they have found a bedsit that meets her licence criteria.
Helen Emmings heads the project: “This isn’t an easy option. We are a shoulder to cry on, but we are businesslike,” she said. “This is about finding solutions, not getting stuck.”
Do women’s centres work? Evaluation is haphazard and needs rigour. However, according to one evaluation, for every £1 spent there is a return of £14 for the taxpayer. Prison costs on average more than £36,000 a year, much more for the very disturbed. Women’s centres are far cheaper, from £1,000 to £15,000 per woman per year. In the spring, WomenMatta ends. The team will lose their jobs and the women an anchor.
As Nick Hardwick, chief inspector of prisons, said last year: “We cannot go on like this.”
Yvonne Roberts is a trustee of Women in Prison