Jan Royall on the Coalition’s abandonment of the ‘women at risk’ agenda
The most important work undertaken to reduce the number of women in prison was done by Jean Corston, with her invaluable review and report in 2007 on “The need for a distinct, radically different, visibly-led, strategic, proportionate, holistic, woman-centred, integrated approach”. Seven years on, and there is still much to be done to prevent the lives of women and their families being torn apart by the lack of action to address issues connected with women’s offending before imprisonment becomes a serious option.
As a result, there has been much more of a woman-centred approach and the last Labour government did much to bring improvements. Funding was provided to start building a network of women’s centres; mandatory strip-searching in prisons was ended; and governance structures, including a cross-departmental Women’s Team, were established. Women’s first contact with a prison has improved, so that the fear and alienation is reduced and they are able to be in touch with their children to ensure they are being properly cared for.
Sadly, David Cameron’s government has abandoned the women at risk agenda. Indeed, the Justice Select Committee report on ‘Corston’ said: “In the first two years of the Coalition Government there was a hiatus in efforts to make headway”; and that the reforms put in place were “clearly designed with men in mind”. Instead of a proper women’s strategy, it went on, we have an agenda which the committee judged to have been “produced in haste with insufficient thought”, that fails to make progress or commit to improve the rehabilitative services and outcomes for women offenders.
Why, for example, has the Government proposed the closure of open prisons in Askham Grange and East Sutton Park? Both have a proven track record of encouraging rehabilitation and enabling mums to remain with their children. Yes, some women need to be in prison, but it is their children who suffer. By taking short term decisions and making short term cuts, the Government is failing individuals, families and society for the future.
Much more work needs to be done on reducing offending, as well as effective prevention strategies; but also on ensuring that when women are in prison, the environment supports and promotes an easier transition back into society. I am very proud to be associated with Eastwood Park Soaps, a social enterprise that is run by prisoners inside Eastwood Park Prison. The women make wonderful soap which is sold in attractive packaging which they have also helped to design. Profits made are used to improve the lives of those in prison but most importantly to give them extra money when they leave. The work gives them confidence and dignity. The money helps them through the vital first days of freedom, when they are often most vulnerable.
I am delighted that one of the former inmates will speak at a forthcoming conference organised by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, and that each of the participants from six or seven Commonwealth countries will receive some Eastwood soap.
So much can and must be done to address the needs of women when they come into contact with the criminal justice system. When it costs over £56,000 to put a woman in prison as opposed to £10,000-£15,000 to fund a community order, it is what you might call a ‘no brainer’. Women’s Centres provide support and care to those with mental health problems, or who have suffered domestic abuse, along with education and skills support. By investing in such centres, we can help to ensure that these women do not end up behind bars. But some centres are now under threat.
Ever the optimist, I hope Ministers will demonstrate that they really are taking seriously the matter of the reduction of women being given custodial sentences. Those women, their children and our wider society deserve nothing less.
Baroness Jan Royall of Blaisdon is Shadow Leader of the House of Lords. She tweets@LabourRoyall
Published 26th June 2014