This is a guest post by Kate Paradine, Chief Executive Officer of Women in Prison.
A broken system
Since joining Women in Prison at the end of 2015 I have had many reasons to be baffled by the criminal justice response to women and the reality facing the 3,900 women who now sleep in prison on an average night. Over half of those sentenced are serving short sentences of 3 months or less for minor non-violent offences like theft, often linked to poverty, addiction and mental ill health. High reoffending rates mean that most women who complete short sentences will be back in prison within a year. Tragically in 2016, 22 women died in prison, with 12 of them taking their own lives – just one example of a broken system.
10 years after Corston
Ten years on from Baroness Jean Corston’s report on the treatment of women affected by the criminal justice system, people often ask why change has been so slow and why there are still so many women serving expensive and counter productive prison sentences. Especially when the vast majority of women reach prison with a background of poverty, mental ill health, addiction – often victims of domestic abuse, sexual exploitation or neglect and abuse as children – and then leave prison with their situation worse than when they arrived. The current position is a failure of social justice and human rights. In terms of good use of public money, reducing reoffending and meeting the needs of victims of crime it is ridiculous. So why no real change for so long?
Many of us would disagree with Machiavelli on his core beliefs, but he hit the nail on the head when he said this:
“There is nothing more difficult to take in hand … or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the reformer has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents … and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them.”
When it comes to the case for reducing the use of prison for women, we have few opponents. This has long-standing cross-party support backed by numerous parliamentary and Inspectorate reports. Today MPs, prison governors, Police and Crime Commissioners, leaders of local authorities and charities are lining up to say this can be done. Magistrates and judges can only work within existing sentencing guidelines using the options available to them and often they feel they have no choice but to send women to prison. In my experience it is not enemies that block our way to change but Machiavelli’s “incredulity problem”.
We know what works – and what doesn’t
It is amazing how often successive Ministers and others responsible for this area repeat the mantra of needing evidence for what works before change can happen. The current prisons crisis has proven beyond doubt what hasn’t worked and the Ministry of Justice’s Justice Data Lab and other evaluations (quantitative and qualitative) give us strong evidence for what a different system can deliver.
We at Women in Prison and many others know that the ambition to halve the women’s prison population from 3,900 to 2020 by the year 2020 is possible if we turn our attention to the solutions [root causes of offending and community] rather than the problem [crime and prisons]. The next Parliament means a new debate on proposals sat out in the Prison Safety & Reform White Paper, including a proposal to build new women’s prisons. There is deep resistance to this proposal across organisations working in the system who see first hand the tragedy of community services starved of resources. Now is the time to stand together with a clear message about what is needed to make change happen.
So, what could our vision be for what the community and criminal justice response to women would look like in 2020 and beyond?
A new model
Imagine a situation in which every woman who comes in contact with the criminal justice system wherever she lived had the opportunity to tackle the root causes that bought her there – wherever possible diverted early from the counter productive and punitive ‘vicious circle’ of criminal justice responses.
She would have a key worker to help her access support for mental ill health, recovery from trauma, addressing domestic abuse and any problems with debt and unemployment, housing, parenting support and access to a range of specialist agencies. All backed up with a safe place to go where she can meet other women and build a social network of community support that provides a safety net to back her up in turbulent times and help her turn her life around over the long term. This would be available if a woman was arrested, at court and during any sentence in the community (enabling restorative justice and ‘community payback’ where needed). In the rare cases where custody was considered necessary due to the nature of the offence and risk to the public, this woman and her family would be able to access that same holistic support in a secure setting and after her release.
A call to action
We already have women’s centres across the country providing services like this, which a Ministry of Justice study has shown have a statistically significant impact on reducing reoffending by women. Women in Prison runs three such centres in Woking (Woking Women’s Support Centre), Manchester (WomenMATTA) and Lambeth (Beth Centre). Imagine if centres like these weren’t being allowed to “wither on the vine” in a postcode lottery of provision which leaves women facing a roulette wheel of sentencing. To make this happen we need local and national leaders to put their weight behind the need for change. Women in Prison have produced two one page briefings for MPs and PCCs so they know what the issues are and what they can do to make change happen.
We are calling on all those running women’s services and others to send the briefings to their local leaders including newly elected MPs of all parties accompanied by an invitation to local leaders to meet and see for themselves what alternatives to prison are available in their areas – and what gaps exist (hearing from front line workers and women affected by the system in the process). One of our favourite quotes in Women in Prison is Alice Walker’s “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”
The evidence is there, the expertise, the energy for change and the 2020 ambition – a clear target for us all to work towards. If in 2017 we build the right solutions in every community then by 2020 we will be seeing the social justice victory that makes our response to the issue of women affected by the criminal justice system a national cause for celebration – rather than an international source of shame.
Kate Paradine is CEO of Women in Prison, the national charity supporting women affected by the criminal justice system. Women in Prison aims to reduce the women’s prison population to 2,020 (or fewer) by the year 2020 – this is roughly half the current number of women in prison. Pledge your support here.