A woman I will call Lisa rang me the other day wanting to get involved in our work to improve the response of the criminal justice system to women in trouble. She had been at the sharp end of a system that can too readily send women into prison, often leaving dependent children behind and causing long term damage to individuals and families. Lisa had no barrister in court and no-one to explain on her behalf that she had been 20 years in an abusive relationship and that whilst most of her children were grown up she had a ten year old at home who would be traumatised by separation. She was given an 18 months custodial sentence for a first, non-violent offence and sent from her home in Devon to a prison hundreds of miles away. Now released 'on tag', she is struggling to find a job and says she is receiving no support to get her life back on track. Lisa is not a statistic but her experience reflects that of many other women in the criminal justice system. Women are twice as likely as men to be imprisoned for a first offence, their offending is often linked to histories of abuse and trauma and coercive and abusive relationships, and their employment outcomes post prison are three times worse than men's.
A major research study revealed over a decade ago that two-thirds of imprisoned women are mothers, and it's estimated that 17,240 children are separated from their mothers by imprisonment. For 85% of mothers in custody, this is the first time they have been separated from their child. The anxiety and guilt this provokes is a major factor in women's high rates of self-harm in prison and makes prison a double punishment - with the 'collateral damage' of long-term impacts on children. As one woman said to me - "for a mother, even a short prison term is a life sentence".
Most children with an imprisoned father live with their mother, but only nine per cent of children are cared for by the father if their mother is imprisoned, and only five per cent remain in the family home. This is why the Prison Reform Trust's discussion paper, is focused on the sentencing of mothers. After talking to women about their experiences, as well as lawyers and women's service providers, we are recommending strengthening of sentencing guidelines, improvements to the sentencing process, and stable funding of women's support services. In a time of austerity, the evidence that community-based programmes delivered by women's services are more cost-effective than short prison sentences and deliver better outcomes for women and their families is compelling. But as the Chairman of the Magistrates Association said in his foreword to Sentencing of Mothers, "Magistrates need to be informed of, and confident in, the effective community interventions and programmes for women" - so local resource directories of women's services and improved pre-sentence reports are needed as well.
The Prison Reform Trust's Transforming Lives programme, supported by the Big Lottery Fund, is working with partners including the Soroptimists, Families Outside and User Voice to promote more effective, early intervention, and non-custodial responses to women in trouble.
Governments across the UK have signaled their recognition that the solutions to women's offending do not lie behind prison walls. It will be important to maintain momentum for change to achieve a sustainable rebalancing of criminal justice responses. The imminent closure of HMP Holloway in London, the largest and most iconic women's prison in the UK, and the also notorious HMP Cornton Vale in Scotland, are big strides in the right direction. Let them be strides towards dedicated community based services that understand the realities of women's lives and can make a lasting difference to their children's lives too.
Jenny Earle is Programme Director, Reducing Women's Imprisonment at the Prison Reform Trust
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