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Female offenders failed by 'woeful' lack of community services

Sale of HMP Holloway presents a 'once in a generation opportunity' for reform

A decade after a landmark Home Office report called for radical changes in female criminal justice - progress has been ‘pathetic’, campaigners have claimed.

The Mayor of London Police and Crime Committee (MOPAC) has launched an investigation into women in the criminal justice system, a year on from the closure of Europe’s largest female prison, HMP Holloway which was based in North East London.

MOPAC will also examine how the context of women’s offending and the way women offenders are dealt with has changed over the last decade.

In 2007 the Home Office published the Corston report, which was hailed as a blueprint for female criminal justice reform and found that ‘the nature of women’s custody needs to be radically rethought’.

But criminal justice charities slammed the government’s progress as ‘woeful’ at a MOPAC meeting last week.

Programme director at the Prison Reform Trust Jenny Earle said: “Obviously the Corston report is very important landmark report and a blueprint for improvements and progress in the criminal justice system.

“Has the system improved since then? I would say overall not very much. Indeed in the last year or two we have seen record numbers of women dying in prison, very high rates of self-harm among women in prison and generally a growing evidence base of the damage done to women.

“We haven’t seen the implementation of the Corston approach for a more community based response to women’s offending. We’re still seeing large numbers of women-  too many vulnerable women- drawn into the criminal justice system because of the failure to  meet their needs in the community.

“We need a much stronger emphasis on women’s specific solutions in the community and there’s still a long way to go before we’ve achieved that.”

Dr Kate Paradine, chief executive of Women in Prison added: “The progress has been woeful in those ten years and we’ve certainly taken steps back in terms of funding women’s services. In terms of funding and developing a network women’s centres the position is pathetic, given that we’ve had ten years to make progress.

“In London in particular things are really pretty bad compared to other big cities including the likes of Manchester.”

Niki Scordi, chief executive of Advance echoed Dr Paradine and Ms Earle’s comments but Helga Swidenbank, director of probation at London Community Rehabilitation Company said one success had been the end of strip searching, making a ‘huge impact on the lives of women entering the criminal justice system.’

As a result of a lack of women’s community services, magistrates and judges are more likely to impose custodial sentences for female offenders, they said.

Women are twice as likely as men to be sent to prison for a first offence, Ms Earle said.

Ms Earle said: “It is still the case that most women who end up in prison are there for non violent offending. Women’s offending is overwhelmingly non -violent offending."

Prison Reform Trust has highlighted how TV licencing accounts for 36 per cent of all prosecutions of women.

Ms Earle said: “The usual alternative is a short prison sentence. The outcomes for women are very poor. A rise in use of short prison sentencing more recently has seen shocking rise in women recalled to prison. 

"Offenders with a custodial sentence of more than one day now are subject to 12 months supervision. In absence women centred support that had resulted in a revolving door into prison, spinning ever faster for women.

“There is an awful lack of services in the community for women, there is a lack of women’s mental health services.  

“A course of women specific treatment in Northampton is being piloted because there is evidence of women having specific and often unmet mental health needs. And that links to drug and alcohol use and other challenges women face in their lives. We need more services geared towards women who have been failed over many years by social services.”

Dr Paradine added: “If you compare men and women in prison both are disadvantaged but on every level women are more so- mental health, experience of domestic violence, sexual assault, exploitation. And the caring role [women are often the primary carer in their family] is really important in terms of survival and poverty related offending.”

But the sale of the estate of HMP Holloway is a ‘unique opportunity’ to turn the building into a women’s community service centres, the campaigners said.

The closure of the London women’s prison has had a ‘huge impact’ on charities and prisoner’s rehabilitation alike, they told the panel. 

Dr Paradine said: “The decision was so sudden, so rushed, so poorly implemented. The impact on the whole system has been disastrous.

“The cost to charities involved has been immense, “ she said. Charity workers expenses to travel back and forth between London and prisons in Peterborough and further afield has spiralled as they try to help offenders find housing and sign up to a GP.  

She added: “Financially and emotionally the cost are often lifelong. Even a few weeks in prison for a mother has an effect for the rest of child’s lifetime. I think the impact is underestimated.

“The logistics of traveling means woman are seeing much less of their children. The reality is a hand to mouth existence for most of these families. Taking a day or more to travel is a real achievement. No provision has been made to for the effect of this closure upon children and families.”

But Helga Swindenbank, director of probation at London Community Rehabilitation Company, said: “Let’s not pretend Holloway was a wonderful place.”

The lost opportunity was the fact that the government did not respond to calls to turn the prison into a women’s community centre.

However, the fact that Islington council has announced the sale of the site could be a ‘another window of opportunity’, she said.

Ms Earle urged MOPAC panel members to support their pleas for the site to be turned into a women’s centre or for sale of the land to go towards women’s community centres.

“Sustained leadership will be absolutely critical. We do have a unique opportunity to rescue the situation and create a brighter future for women offenders. lf we don’t seize in the opportunity we will not be doing well in the future.”

Dr Paradine added: “About a quarter of women in prison are from London. For London to take forward this agenda, we could make a national difference and become and international example rather than the current situation which is an international source of shame and embarrassment.

“It is a once in a generation opportunity for change in this area.”  

MOPAC is accepting written submissions regarding its Women in the Criminal Justice System investigation until December 4. Email contributions can be sent to policeandcrimecommittee@london.gov.uk