Judges are locking up too many domestic violence victims due to a “lack of understanding,” according to the president of the Prison Governors’ Association.
Andrea Albutt is calling for a reduction in the female prison population and for funds to be diverted to women’s refuges and drug addiction centres.
Her fears the state is failing women offenders were sparked by a report by the Prison Reform Trust, which revealed the majority (57%) of those jailed last year were domestic abuse victims.
The trust found more than half (53%) of women in jail reported having experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse as a child, compared to 27% of men.
The report, which was backed up by data from the Criminal Bar Association, found most women were locked up for crimes less serious than those which they had suffered and identified “strong links between women’s experience of domestic and sexual abuse and coercive relationships, and their offending”.
It found women arrested for domestic violence incidents were rarely the primary aggressor and police were failing to investigate history of abuse.
“The level of damage that you see in prisons is a tragedy,” says Albutt, formerly governor at Low Newton women’s prison in Durham. “It can be a joy working in a women’s prison because you get the chance to make such a big difference but there are so many damaged women.
“They become a victim a second time again when put in prison.”
Asked why she thought domestic abuse victims were so regularly jailed, she said: “I think it is a lack of empathy, a lack of understanding. There is a lack of services out there in the community.”
Charities also told the trust there was scant domestic abuse training among the CPS, probation, magistrates and judges, except at a few specialist courts.
Albutt says women are being disproportionately hit with prison sentences of less than one month, and incarceration for minor offences sees women lose custody of their children.
One in four women jailed last year was sentenced to 30 days or less, with almost 300 put behind bars for under two weeks.
One of the trust’s key findings was that women affected by domestic abuse were often coerced into offending and in “distinct ways”. It singled out trafficked women, foreign nationals, women from minority ethnic and religious groups and those with learning difficulties as particularly vulnerable to coercion.
It called for Police and Crime Commissioners to use their powers to ensure more out of court disposals for petty crimes and for the CPS to reconsider guidance.
It concluded that “criminalisation and particularly imprisonment compound the problems of women affected by abuse” and that current legal defences fail to cover the “broader spectrum of sustained psychological, physical and financial abuse that lies behind some women’s offending”.
Albutt is calling for magistrates and judges to consider more community sentences for both sexes amid rising fears of a crisis in UK jails.
The impact of prison on women is far, far greater than it is on men
A 30% cut to budgets over the past decade has led to crumbling buildings, alarming inspection reports, a prison officer recruitment crisis and record rates of violence, self-harm and suicide.
“Services for women in prison are very good, but that doesn’t alter the fact that in most cases they shouldn’t be in prison. They should be able to receive those services out in the community.”
“The impact of prison on women is far, far greater than it is on men,” she said. “The crime to me rarely fits the impact of imprisonment. It’s so very tragic and, it feels to me, unnecessary.
“There is no evidence, that I am aware of, that women are becoming more criminalised and there is a disproportionate number of women in prison.”
She added: “What you tend to find with female offenders is that they’re offences are at the lower end of the scale but there tends to be a high proportion of custodial sentences.
“There is usually an abusive relationship behind [the criminality] - so, often a dysfunctional abusive upbringing, an abusive father, an abusive partner – and usually there is an element of coercion in the criminality.
“What you tend to find with women is that they are usually primary carers and often they have children very young.
“There is also a high proportion of short sentences and you find that in most cases, going to prison means they lose everything.
“So, their partner, whether they are abusive or not, tend to disappear, the kids go into care, they lose their accommodation and, if they have a job they lose that job.
“Their whole world falls apart.”
Albutt continued: “Services for women in prison are very good, but that doesn’t alter the fact that in most cases they shouldn’t be in prison. They should be able to receive those services out in the community.”
She said a number of reports as far back as Baroness Corston’s 2006 study had recommended more community sentences and crime prevention.
“It is a far, far better model but it was never implemented because it was an expensive model,” she said.
“If we could reduce the population in women’s prions and divert some of those funds into women’s centres – like domestic violence refuges, drug addiction centres and skills centres – that would be better. In doing that you are going to create less victims because their children will not be left alone.
“To me, it is a no brainer because it will reduce offending and reduce the number of victims in jail.”
A National Audit Office report last year shone a light on how women were coping once they found themselves behind bars. It found that 28% of women inside jails were found to be self-harming, while the figure for men was 12%.
Each prison place costs around £47k a year, Albutt says, and there is little sign of fresh investment. Reducing the prison population, she claims therefore, should be a central aim of policy.
“There are way too many people in prison,” she says. “You can’t reduce the prison budget by 30% and continue to lock up the same number of people.
“We have a lot of short term offenders and we know that short-term sentences don’t work because we aren’t with them long enough to make a significant difference.
“I’m not saying there should not be a consequence to people breaking the law, of course there should be but all other options need to be considered before people are put in prison for a short sentence.”
You can’t reduce the prison budget by 30% and continue to lock up the same number of people
“I understand that the victim of a crime wants to see punishment and that they want to see them in prison – but while it might make you feel better as the victim of a crime, it won’t change that person’s behaviour.
“It’s a very expensive thing to do and it has no impact.”
Albutt says prison governors have been scathing about privatisation in the justice department.
Failed contractor Carillion was the provider of jail maintenance until it folded earlier this month. A slew of inspection reports on jail maintenance have been damning, with Inspector Peter Clark describing HMP Liverpool as “squalid” in his latest reports.
“They never worked from day one and it was a complete disaster,” says Albutt. “I think the whole contract from start to finish was complete naivety.
“The [in-house] works department that we had previously – at least that was in the governors’ control. Under Grayling large swathes of the prison responsibilities were contracted out. So while the governors’ name might be above the door, all they have is an influencing role.
“They don’t have any control. They are constantly telling me that they are very, very frustrated.
“The main concern is staffing and they do need new technology.”
She acknowledges there is little public sympathy for prisoners, adding: “You don’t know who is going to end up in prison. If someone you love is in prison, you want to know that they are getting what they’re entitled to and that, if they have a health problem, they are getting the appropriate care.
“And one day we will be releasing back on to the streets so we want to make them better people.
“We have to care for them, we have to invest and, if we don’t, what does that say about us.”
She adds: “Prisons are in crisis, there is no doubt about that.
“All public services have had to take their fair share of austerity but it is clear that prisons do not win votes.
“We have a record number of people killing themselves in prison but no one seems to be asking why.
“Is there an appetite to spend money on that when our NHS is falling apart at the seams? Probably not. NHS wins votes and prisons don’t.”
She says a lack of investment is driving the crisis in prison officer recruitment, however, as many do not feel safe in an “intimidatory atmosphere”.
“I think [the former Justice Secretary] Chris Grayling had the biggest negative impact, but we have had six Secretaries of State in seven years,” she says. “I feel like they are playing games with prisons.
“I can’t emphasise how difficult it is when a new Secretary of State comes in and wants to do something different.”
Asked what will happen in the coming years if no new cash is found for prisons, Albutt concludes: “Well, we will just continue firefighting.”