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How do we reduce the number of women in prison?

Penelope Gibbs
20 May 2016

The latest twist of the Archers story has highlighted the plight of women in the justice system.  Helen Titchener (nee Archer) has been accused of attempting to murder her husband Rob, whom we know has been emotionally abusing her for years.  It is a serious crime and she has been remanded in custody pending trial, even though this means she is split from her son Henry and, since pregnant, has to give birth virtually in prison.  If she is convicted, she faces having her new baby taken from her and given to the father Rob, her abuser.  The relatively wealthy background of Helen is unusual for women prisoners, but all the rest is familiar to those who work with women in the criminal justice system – the vulnerability of the women, their past abuse and the terrible impact on them and their children of being split up. Apparently the Lord Chancellor has been moved by the storyline to look again at the numbers of women in prison.  So what does my experience of trying to reduce the number of children in prison (now down by two-thirds) suggest are the means to create the same reduction for women?

1) Speak carefully about fairness.  Those who work in the sector think that women, though subject to the same sentencing regime, should have their background taken into account and be offered programmes designed for women.  But the public according to recent research, think equality means just that – that sentences should be standardised, and women treated no differently to men.  So we all need to tread carefully in discussing women, explaining clearly why the needs of women in the criminal justice system are different to those of men, and not counting on a “sympathy vote”.

2) Stop (for the moment) creating more alternatives to custody, and concentrate on having existing ones used.  There are excellent women’s centres in parts of the country offering holistic programmes for women subject to community sentences. There are some probation officers who specialise in dealing with women.  We need more of both, but unless we can find a way to change how the overall system works, these gender specific programmes will not be used.  For under 18 year olds, the alternatives to custody are not brilliant but, in trying to reduce the number in prison, we decided to focus our energy on influencing the decision to imprison, rather than trying to improve a community sentence which was “good enough”, and definitely better than prison.

3) Don’t use prison as a place of safety.  Helen Titchener has been remanded for a very serious (alleged) offence, but women are remanded for much less.  Sarah Reed, who committed suicide in January, appeared to have been remanded to facilitate a psychiatric assessment, having failed to turn up for one court hearing. Too many women self harm or commit suicide in prison to see it as a place of “protective custody”.  Yet it is frequently treated as that, as forthcoming research by Tamara Pattinson for the Griffins Society will illustrate.

3) Train magistrates and district judges about women’s particular needs.  We have lots of evidence about the circumstances of women prisoners and about the crimes they commit.  But comparatively little about the decision to imprison. A recent paper suggests that magistrates have very little knowledge of women in the criminal justice system and, in particular, of gender specific approaches.  Many thirsted for more knowledge.  Training budgets have been slashed in recent years, but investing in this might save on women in prison.  The reduction in numbers of children in prison depended on a change in the attitude of magistrates to imprisonment – JPs are specially trained in the needs of children who offend and trust the expertise of their local youth offending teams.

4)  Think about problem-solving courts for women.  Caroline Dineage, the minister charged with getting problem-solving courts off the ground (again) specifically mentioned women the other day.  Actually in the States, home of problem-solving courts, there are none specifically for women offenders, but it would suit them well.  Problem-solving courts try to address the reasons why people commit crime and offer support as well as punishment.  The judges presiding over them are specialists, and understand all the programmes in the community relevant to their court.  Setting up a problem solving court for women offenders wouldn’t be a panacea (some women and some offences would not suit the problem-solving court), but it would go a long way to meet their needs.

5)  Change the way CRCs deal with women offenders.  This is perhaps the most difficult since the contracts CRCs are fulfilling do not mandate a different approach to women (though they must consider women’s specific needs), and the funding available is insufficient to provide the full support offered by, say, a Women’s Centre. As an example the Thames Valley CRC offers a specific group programme for women but, in this time frame (12 sessions), in a group, the CRC cannot possibly address the deep trauma underlying many women’s offending.

6) Experiment with justice reinvestment for women.  Women offenders need help from social, health and housing services to turn their lives around.  We recently learnt that Bronzefield prison offered a couple of women tents on their release, since they had no housing.  But these budgets are outside the criminal justice system, and there is currently no incentive for cash strapped services to give any priority to women offenders.  The best way round this is to delegate the budget for women’s custody (and maybe also the budget for court hearings and community sentences) to local authorities, so they have an incentive to do everything possible to support women at risk of offending or continuing to offend.

None of these measures are easy, but they are based on the success of reducing numbers of children in custody, and any one would make some difference.