21/12/2018 14:46 GMT | Updated 21/12/2018 14:53 GMT

Women Prisoners Are Being Badly Let Down By Government Reforms – They Urgently Need Better Support On Release

Despite the promise of greater support, services in the community have collapsed, leaving those responsible for supervision unable to resolve the complex problems that many women face

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“I have no excitement about going out. I got no place to go and an ex-partner who is very violent.”

These are the words of Linda, a woman released from prison but who all too swiftly returned back there. Her story of unstable accommodation, and concerns about returning to an abusive relationship are all too common for many women leaving prison.

A report published today by the Prison Reform Trust shows the number of women being recalled back to prison has more than doubled since the introduction of measures which were designed to increase support for people on release.

There is mounting evidence that women in particular have been badly let down. In response to growing concerns over the increasing numbers of women being returned to custody, PRT set out to explore women’s experiences of support on release, and the impact of being recalled to prison. The findings and recommendations, set out in our new report Broken Trust, make a compelling case for urgent reform.

Recalled prisoners are currently the fastest growing part of the prison population. This is a direct consequence of government reforms introduced in early 2015. Thousands of people previously ineligible for support on release were to be given help to turn their lives around—that was the carrot. The stick came in the form of mandatory supervision to anyone leaving custody who has served two days or more—for a minimum of 12 months.

Women are a small percentage of the total prison population, accounting for 5%, but have been disproportionately affected by the changes. They are more likely than men to have committed non-violent offences and as a result the majority serve short prison sentences. The impacts are keenly felt by their children. Last year nearly three-quarters of women sentenced to prison received a sentence of less than 12 months. As a result of the changes these women are now subject to supervision on recall.

Despite the promise of greater support, services in the community have collapsed, leaving those responsible for supervision unable to resolve the complex problems that many women face, such as finding safe and suitable accommodation, support for debt, drug and alcohol addictions, abusive and coercive relationships and mental illness. It is a system setting women up to fail.

Since the changes were introduced, recall numbers for men have risen by 22%—for women they’ve grown by 131%. Across England and Wales over 1,700 women were recalled to prison during the last year. The report found that many women felt that recall was issued too soon, and without being given a chance.

“I think they use recall far too early. It’s just convenient when they don’t want to deal with you any more. Like a missed appointment. They should work with you on why that happened.”

Women might be recalled back to custody for a number of reasons. They may have lost contact with their probation officer; there may be growing concerns that there is a risk of committing serious harm; or there may be a suspicion that a further offence will be committed. Only a minority of the recalled women have reoffended, and this too is often due to a systemic failures of support. As one woman in the report explains:

“I went to my probation appointment with black eyes from being attacked—they didn’t do anything, they didn’t see I needed help or they just didn’t want to know. I began using again and thieving from shops, I needed to eat. My mental health was deteriorating. I stopped going to probation appointments.

The report does not presume to second-guess individual decisions to recall, but it lays bare the barriers that women face in trying to succeed on release.

An effective supervision relationship has to be built on trust. This trust is undermined when the support that is so urgently needed cannot be provided at a critical time in a woman’s life. As a result, our report found that many women are reluctant to confide about their difficulties for fear of being returned to custody.

The government’s Female Offender Strategy, published in June this year, identifies a lack of support as a critical factor in the increased recall of women. It recognises that most women who offend face profound social hardship, and it embraces the case for change. It promises a cross-government approach to finally deliver the necessary support to help women tackle the underlying causes of their offences. 2019 must be the year where that promise is kept.

Dr Jenny Earle is Programme Director at the Prison Reform Trust