Thursday 9 June 2011


There is much attention today on Justice Secretary Ken Clarke’s embattled position on sentencing reform. The Sun has him on their front page as a Teletubby living in Laa-Laa Land – ie out of touch with what (the Sun asserts) the public wants to be done to offenders. All this is overshadowing the closely-connected issue of women in prison and the report published this week by the Women’s Justice Taskforce. Allow me to rehearse some of what’s in that report...

Over the past 15 years the women’s prison population has risen from 1,800 to over 4,000 today – an increase of 114%. Most women serve short sentences for non-violent crime and for those serving sentences of less than 12 months, almost two thirds are re-convicted within a year of release. The average cost of a women’s prison place is £56,415 a year. By contrast, an intensive community order costs in the region of £10,000 - £15,000.

The Taskforce was established in 2010 to take a fresh look at an old problem this time focusing on the economics, structure and accountability of women’s justice. Its membership includes senior representatives from the Magistrates’ Association, the Association of Chief Police Officers, probation, prisons, women’s centres, politics, the media and former offenders.

The report makes clear that the current economic climate and the government’s proposed overhaul of the justice system provide a timely opportunity to look again at how women’s justice is delivered. The government's programme to reduce unnecessary imprisonment should be accelerated, and the money saved from the women’s prison estate reinvested to support effective services for female offenders in the community. Many of the solutions to women’s offending lie outside of the justice system in health, housing, and treatment for drug addiction and, of course, mental illness.

Women released from custody having served a sentence of less than 12 months are more likely to reoffend than those who received a community order; in 2008 the difference in proven reoffending rates was 8.3%. An estimated 17,700 children are separated from their mothers by imprisonment and only 5% of them remain in their own home while their mother is in custody.

However, while women’s prisons are funded centrally through the National Offender Management Service, women’s centres rely on a wide range of funding sources to enable them to supervise court orders and deliver services for vulnerable women in their area. The Taskforce heard evidence from the manager of one centre that was reliant on 37 different funding streams, with a mixture of statutory and non-statutory sources, all with different methods of evaluation and reporting arrangements.

There is a crying need to get serious about diversion based on good evidence of what works (and not what the Sun says), to close women’s prisons and to reinvest in mental health and other services.

Hafal’s Link Service has a specialist team assisting Welsh women prisoners in the two main prisons which take women from Wales, Eastwood Park and Styal. Our experience bears out what the Taskforce is saying. No amount of reform of the present system or good will from professionals will make prison an effective, humane, or cost-effective means to deal with the great majority of women prisoners of whom some 30% have a serious mental illness and far more have lesser but significant mental health problems.

I challenge anybody to name a greater, ongoing scandal in our society than the treatment by the state of those 30% of women and 10% of male prisoners with a serious mental illness. Britain’s prisons are anyway a matter for public shame as repeated reports by HM Inspector show. But that we knowingly place people so seriously ill and vulnerable within these dangerous and dysfunctional environments is diabolical.

See the Taskforce's report here and for details of Hafal's Criminal Justice Link Service go here.

If you disagree with me then my therapeutic advice is to deal with your punitive apoplexy by playing the Sun's "Lob a Hush Puppy at Ken Clarke" game here until you've got it out of your system and start to see reason...