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Setting women prisoners up to fail?

Penelope Gibbs
17 Apr 2016

Its great to read a positive prison inspection report, as the one for Bronzefield was this week, since they are few and far between.  A seasoned visitor of prisons told me that, if imprisoned, he would rather go to Bronzefield than anywhere else.  Its a large women’s prison not far from Heathrow Airport.  44% of the women arrived at the prison depressed or suicidal.

The scary thing about reading even a positive prison inspection report is the light it sheds on problems in the system.  The report hit the headlines because it revealed two women had been given tents on leaving the prison because they had no other accommodation.  103 women left the prison in six months with no good idea where they were going to live.  How can we expect prisoners to rebuild their lives in the community, if they have no community because they have no home?

Another depressing and startling statistic in the report is the number of women in the prison on recall. Prisoners on licence have always been liable to be recalled back to prison, if they breach any condition of their parole, or just if probation think it is the right thing to do.  Now prisoners on very short sentences can and are recalled.  When Chris Grayling was Lord Chancellor, a new law was brought in mandating twelve months post sentence supervision for anyone released from prison on a short sentence, even those sentenced for just a week.  This is one of those policies which sounds fantastic in theory, but sometimes works disastrously in practice, since ex prisoners tend to have chaotic lives and forget to turn up for appointments.  Anyone who doesn’t turn up for an appointment can be recalled to prison.

In Bronzefield “turnover was higher than usual because women who had served short sentences and who had failed to comply with licence conditions were being recalled. In the six months prior to the inspection 380 women had been released subject to licence conditions and 119 had been recalled, compared with 89 released and 59 recalled over the corresponding period in the previous year”.  The report also says that many women were only told of the conditions of their release (of their “post custody licence”) on the day they left. “Women who were so far into the release process might not have always understood the detail or importance of licence conditions, which might have contributed to levels of non-compliance leading to recalls”.

All these seem to be connected.  Women released after short sentences are in a revolving door.   Many don’t have accommodation and/or don’t understand the conditions of their licence.  They forget to turn up for appointments or commit a minor offence like stealing a sandwich and they are recalled to prison. 10% of the prisoners in Bronzefield are there because they have been recalled.  I’ll wager that most don’t pose a serious, if any, threat to community safety. They are vulnerable women who need a huge amount of support to rebuild their lives but don’t get enough. Until we join up services, the revolving door will just carry on revolving.