Bishop of Gloucester: Gov't must transform the way women in England and Wales experience the justice system
Rt Revd Rachel Treweek warns that although "there will always be some women for whom prison is the most appropriate place, it is simply illogical to subject thousands of women to the prison system."
Last week brought the tragic news that three women died in custody in the UK. Though women make up a relative small proportion of the number of those held in custody in the UK, they are a cohort with distinct challenges, and their imprisonment has a significant impact on communities and society as a whole. According to the excellent organisation ‘Women In Prison’ 53% of women in prison report having experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse during childhood; 46% report having suffered domestic violence; and over 30% women spent time in local authority care as a child.
The government has recently tried to address these specific needs with a long-awaited Female Offenders’ Strategy. This builds on the work done by Baroness Jean Corston over a decade ago, where she proposed setting up a network of national women’s centres, to provide an alternative to custody for women. Most women are in prison for a short amount of time – less than six months, and the majority are there for non-violent offences, often for shoplifting. Indeed, a number of women are sent to prison every year because they fail to pay TV license fines, simply because women are more likely to open the door to a shared home when a fine is issued against a household, and can be sent to custody if they are unable to pay.
My own interest in this issue flows not least from my experience in The Diocese of Gloucester which has one of this country’s twelve women’s prisons, HMP Eastwood Park. My diocese is also fortunate to have an outstanding women’s centre, run by the Nelson Trust. The work the Nelson Trust does is remarkable. They do things ‘with’ women rather than ‘to’ them, and provide an opportunity for women in difficult circumstances to transform their own situation. I’ve brought a debate in the House of Lords this week on the ability of women’s centres to improve outcomes in the justice system, because I’ve seen firsthand the difference they can make. The Government must transform the way women in England and Wales experience the justice system.
A short stay in prison can bring chaos into a woman’s life, particularly where she loses contact with her children. Last year 18% of women who left prison did not have anywhere to go and immediately became homeless. Far from prison providing an opportunity for women to address their issues, it either exacerbates existing challenges, particularly with mental health or drug abuse, or creates new problems.
The Ministry of Justice’s own research shows that women’s centres are more effective than prisons at reducing reoffending. They’re also much cheaper – it costs approximately £47,000 a year to keep a woman in prison, yet women’s centres can work effectively with only £4,000 per year per women. Yet the government hasn’t committed to building a network of women’s centres – they’re investing only £5 million into five two-year pilots. In contrast, last year the Government spent more than £170 million operating twelve female prisons.
In the hundred years since women were granted suffrage, we’ve come a long way in developing public policy that includes and is sensitive to women’s needs. Though there will always be some women for whom prison is the most appropriate place, it is simply illogical to subject thousands of women to the prison system. People flourish and thrive in community, where they are known and loved. Women in the justice system must be given a true chance to succeed, and for many the best opportunity for success comes at a women’s centre.