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Farmer Review: family ties ‘utterly indispensable’ for women offenders

Farmer Review supports community alternatives to prison and use of technology to boost rehabilitation of female offenders

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Almost two years ago, in August 2017, Lord Farmer published his ground-breaking review into the importance of family ties for male prisoners; in which he identified family as the “golden thread” running through the processes of all prisons.

Today, the MoJ has published his follow-up report which finds that family ties are even more important for female prisoners. Formally titled: The Importance of Strengthening Female Offenders’ Family and other Relationships to Prevent Reoffending and Reduce Intergenerational Crime, the review seems destined to be a landmark document.

Lord Farmer set the context for his review:

“Healthy, supportive relationships are utterly indispensable for every woman in the criminal justice system if they are to turn away from criminality and contribute positively to society.

Yet female offenders have often experienced abuse and trauma which can profoundly impact their ability to develop and sustain healthy, trusting relationships.

The importance of good family and other relationships, which are rehabilitation assets, needs to be a golden thread running through the criminal justice system.”

The review is structured into three main sections:

  1. Early interventions
  2. Community solutions
  3. Better custody

Early interventions

Where trauma, abuse and multiple adverse childhood experiences are the backdrop to a woman’s life, she will herself be more likely to go on to struggle with drug and alcohol abuse, mental health problems, financial lack, difficulties in sustaining employment, homelessness and a lack of supportive, healthy relationships. As all of these can contribute to offending behaviour, they all need to be addressed if liaison and diversion schemes are to be optimised, a key commitment of the Female Offender Strategy alongside supporting the police to work with women facing complex challenges.

Help to address such issues should not have to wait for women to come into contact with the criminal justice system. Vulnerable women rarely seem to have ready access to services and good peer support networks which could prevent offending and their children repeating the cycle they have become caught up in. Early help is also required to address poor mental health, relationship breakdown, substance misuse, educational failure and lack of skills which could make her unemployable, and the tyranny of serious personal debt.

Joining up all that is available locally – statutory services; private sector philanthropy and corporate social responsibility; voluntary sector providers and volunteers, including peer support from women who have turned their lives around – is a vital first step to addressing the multiple drivers of women’s offending behaviour.

I’ve been fortunate over the last eighteen months to be involved in the evaluation of a women offenders liaison and diversion scheme in Sussex run by Emerging Futures which has very successfully adopted the approach of employing women with lived experience of the criminal justice system to empower women who are arrested to address the problems which bring them into contact with the criminal justice system.

© Andy Aitchison

Community solutions

This section of Lord Farmer’s report covers three main issues.

1: Supporting women’s family and other relationships through the court process
Even if women are detained for only a short period on remand, there can be a devastating effect on families, tenancy arrangements and the ability to provide for their families. Therefore, even though a woman’s status as a primary carer should not be determinative, the impact of remand on dependants should also be considered in any bail decision. The
Personal Circumstances File will help to ensure that this information is available.

The bail period provides an important opportunity to help women address a range of problems which may have been present for a long time. The ‘wake-up call’ of an impending court case, and the need to prove to a sentencer that she has every intention of addressing the causes of her offending could catalyse many positive changes, including in the area of relationships.

Lord Farmer highlights the importance of pre-sentence reports for all women at risk of custody.

2. Family and other relationships and community orders
The combination of support and accountability offered by a community sentence can be invaluable to women with complex needs and offending behaviour. Where a community sentence has been given it is essential that women whose criminogenic needs include relationships receive the necessary help, so this is no longer the case. Relationships
are the foundation stone she can build her new life upon and all women need this to be an explicit element in their rehabilitation. Yet many women have endured devastating experiences in this area.

Family work is not properly embedded in Transforming Rehabilitation: CRCs are not routinely (or ever) commissioning organisations with a proven track record in helping male offenders maintain and strengthen their family ties. Lord Farmer says addressing this lack should be a priority for the re-design of the probation service.

Women’s centres work on all the offending pathways, including ‘Families and Children’ but not all female offenders have access to them and the precarious funding position which many women’s centres find themselves in jeopardises these services which are essential to the rehabilitation and rebuilding of lives. Residential women’s centres could provide a stable base for many women, from which they can complete community orders whilst remaining with their children.

3. Family and other relationships post-release from custody

Lord Farmer highlights the difficulties of short term prisoners having to comply with 12 months of post-sentence supervision while fulfilling their family responsibilities as well as the well-chronicled difficulties in finding secure housing on release. Women leaving prison can be caught up in a ‘Catch 22’ situation with respect to securing accommodation for themselves and their children: they are ineligible for housing until their children are living with them, but their children cannot live with them until they have enough room.

Better custody

The importance of supporting positive family ties is very clear. To reiterate, many women have experienced domestic
abuse and this and other forms of toxic relationships may have been a contributor to or prime factor in their offending behaviour. Many have had very negative family experiences.

Women are more likely to be primary carers and mothers in prison experience significant anxiety because of the separation from their children. This impacts on their mental health and their responses to prison regimes, discipline and interventions. Unless and until women are reassured about their children they are unable to make progress in
other areas.

The long distance many visitors have to travel to prison (women are held, on average, 63 miles from their homes, with a significant number held more than 100 miles from their home, compared to an average of 50 miles for men); the associated costs; and concerns that prisons are unsuitable environments for children are all significant barriers
to families visiting women in custody. Even short distances greatly impede women’s ability to fulfil primary carer and other responsibilities towards their families: imprisonment, by definition, breaks down family ties.

Lord Farmer highlights two areas for reform which would make a significant difference to women’s ability to maintain and strengthen their family ties:

  1. the need to deploy prison-based social workers as part of a multi-disciplinary custodial team and
  2. harnessing the benefits of communications technology, within bounds of appropriate safety and risk, by making virtual visits routinely available.

Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the images in this post. You can see Andy’s work here.

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