We should end out-dated prison for women

Trapped in the Justice Loop?

The out-dated concept of prison for women should be replaced by a twenty-first century environment designed for women in need of some kind of containment.

That’s the recommendation of a new report published last week (10 May 2017)  by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies. The call comes in the Centre’s latest report, Trapped in the Justice Loop?, by the former Ministry of Justice lead on women in the criminal justice system, Liz Hogarth.

With advances in technology and in the understanding of why women end up being criminalised, Liz Hogarth argues, ‘locks, bolts and bars’ approaches are largely redundant. Indeed, future approaches to the confinement of women could ‘bear little resemblance to a prison in its internal and exterior design’.

The report also questions the rationale for the current female prisoner population of some 4,000 women and girls. In 2013, the House of Commons Justice Committee stated that only 3.2 per cent of females in prison ‘were assessed as posing “a high or very high risk of harm to other people”.’ Taken as a basis for imprisonment this would equate ‘to around 125 women’ in prison.

Much of the report details the development of policy on women in the criminal justice system since the publication, in 2007, of the landmark Corston Report on women in the crimnal justice system. Despite some early progress, Liz Hogarth argues, implementation of the ambitious agenda mapped out by Corston quickly ran into the sand.

A comprehensive analysis of the implementation of Corston’s 43 recommendations undertaken by Women in Prison reached a very similar conclusion; they judged that just two recommendations had been fully implemented.

System change

The Corston Report emphasis on system change and services to prevent women being criminalised in the first place was supplanted by a narrow focus on changes to criminal justice processes. As a result, policy-making became stuck:

in the justice loop of courts, probation and prison… making short repeat prison sentences almost inevitable.

The report recommends that the £50 million earmarked for building five new ‘community prisons’ for women should be re-directed to the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) to invest in prevention work. It also calls for the DCLG to be given lead responsibility for prevention.

Recommendations

The report’s seven recommendations to shift policy-making out of the justice loop are:

  1. A shift of focus away from sentencing and the CJS to ‘whole system’ thinking: the holistic, woman-centred, integrated approach identified in the Corston Report, along with the delivery structures needed, that will help avoid needless and damaging contact with the CJS.
  2. The Department for Communities and Local Government should have departmental ownership of the prevention agenda and the lead role, alongside the Department of Health, on the cross-departmental governance group.
  3. Responsibility for expediting the ‘whole system’ approach needed to better support troubled women without criminalising them should be devolved to local communities and robust local governance arrangements put in place.
  4. Police and Crime Commissioners should maximise the potential for the police to divert troubled women away from prosecution whenever possible. The police should be the only point of contact within the CJS for women with multiple complex needs who commit low-level offences.
  5. The network of woman-centred projects should be rebuilt, expanded and nurtured so that they are embedded in local communities. Their engagement as equal partners, along with others in the women’s sector, in shaping the local strategy for women with multiple, complex needs and in the design, development and delivery of gender-sensitive health and social care provision is essential.
  6. The £50 million earmarked for building five new ‘community prisons’ for women, supplemented if necessary by some of the proceeds from the sale of HMP Holloway, should be re-directed by the Treasury from the Ministry of Justice to the Department for Communities and Local Government-led cross-departmental governance group for local devolvement, initially to resource the work on prevention ahead of more wholesale local ownership of justice issues.
  7. Urgent attention must be given to the need to curtail the inappropriate use of imprisonment for low risk women offenders and to improve the response to the relatively few serious high risk women judged as requiring secure confinement. A rethink on penal policy is required to ensure containment for such women is proportionate, makes best use of new technology and provides an environment that meets their specific needs.

Launching the report, the Director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, Richard Garside, said:

Prisons across England and Wales are in crisis. The probation service is in disarray. Community-based services for women at risk of criminalisation are closing through lack of funding.

This excellent and timely review by Liz Hogarth explains how we got here. It also offers some important and practical proposals for how we might get out of the mess we currently are in and develop a sustainable model for woman-centred services in the future.

 

All prison posts are kindly sponsored by Prison Consultants Limited who offer a complete service from arrest to release for anyone facing prison and their family. Prison Consultants have no editorial influence on the contents of this site.

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