Following a Women’s Forum meeting in May to discuss issues around women in prison, we made four submissions to Labour’s National Policy Forym consultation, which you can read below.
Education in the women’s estate (as well as the men’s) has been decimated by cuts to funding, and therefore a huge reduction prison officer numbers post 2010, which results in little or no access to education for most women prisoners. Where there is some access, because of the lack of staff to escort women to prison classrooms, lessons have to be delivered in 3 ½ blocks, which is not only educationally unsound, but also impossible to manage. Labour must recognise that education is key to rehabilitation, and commit to reversing these cuts as a bottom line. Prison educators (who often have no support to call on while in the classroom), need to be guaranteed safety, and working conditions which are commensurate with their mainstream colleagues.
Approximately ¾ of education in prisons comes under the umbrella of Further Education (FE), with the rest privately provided. FE is generally the Cinderella of education services, and doubly so within prisons. This is especially the case where cash-strapped FE colleges divert funding from prison provision to fill gaps in mainstream colleges. A new National Education Service should include prison education as standard, with an end to all private provision, and ring-fenced funding.
Current education provision in prisons is extremely impoverished, with the emphasis on English and Maths (up to level 2 only), and some ESOL (English as a Second Language). At present, the approach to this limited provision is coercive, with imposed measurement and payment by results. Within the National Education Service, prison education should place much greater emphasis on quality and relevance to women in prison. This should include dedicated programmes to support confidence building and independence, recovery from abuse etc. These dedicated courses should be on offer in mainstream adult education, for women serving non-custodial sentences. In addition, Labour must extend prison education’s offer to include free access to Higher Education as appropriate (currently the only way to do this is to take out a loan – a non-starter for the vast majority of women prisoners.). Prison Libraries need to be expanded, properly staffed, and fully accessible to women prisoners. Labour must provide a non-sexist, non-discriminatory service and approach for women as it recognises that although women make up a small number in proportion of the prison population, their needs and care deserve to be met and need addressing in all aspects of prison life, including but not limited to access to education.
2. Reducing Custodial Sentences for Women
Women make up just 5% of the prison population, the vast majority of whom are serving short sentences for non-violent crimes. Custodial sentences for these women are at best inappropriate, and allow women little or no way of improving their lives and escaping the Criminal Justice System.
Many women are pressured to offend by the men in their lives. Instead of being incarcerated, these women need appropriate community-based sentences, with support and access to housing, to avoid having to return to the home, and henceforth the men who are the cause of their offending.
As well as being offenders, a high proportion of women are also victims, and / or have had traumatic experiences. 53% of women prisoners suffered abuse in childhood. 40% of women in prison have experienced domestic violence. 31% have been in local authority care in childhood. Labour’s approach to justice must recognise that these women should not be further punished, but offered appropriate support to recover, and rebuild their lives, coupled with community service programmes.
When women are incarcerated, families are broken. Because there are relatively few women’s prisons, most women in prison are far from home. Due in part to this, 50% of women receive no visits during their sentences, breaking contact with their children. When their mother is imprisoned, most children have to leave the family home to be cared for elsewhere, either by relatives or in Local Authority care. Only 5% of imprisoned women’s children are able to stay in the family home.
Labour must commit to a presumption against custodial sentences shorter than 12 months for women’s non-violent crimes. This will entail a large investment in the development of alternative provision (see 3 below).
However, given that the current cost of imprisonment is approximately £55,000 per woman, community provision would in the end be a cheaper, as well as a more effective and just option.
For crimes which incur longer sentences, or for violent crimes committed by women, much greater attention needs to be given to the mitigating circumstances which have led to this offending. This could involve training given to defence and prosecution lawyers, as well as judges, with the possibility of special advocates assigned to women defendants to present their mitigating circumstances before sentencing.
A Labour Government could introduce these reforms within the women’s estate, given its relatively small size, with a view to rolling them out, where appropriate, to the men’s estate.
3. Alternative Provisions
Although it is noted women affected by the justice system may be offenders it is of utmost important to recognise that these same women are victims. There is a clear need to find alternatives to custodial sentences for women and it is time for a fair effective and cost efficient Criminal Justice System where the abuse, marginalisation and poverty at the root of so much of women’s offending are addressed and custodial sentencing is used as a last resort if at all.
The primary option as an alternative provision should be a community sentence. These work and offer value for money. However, it is not a soft option – it requires an intensive tailor-made programme for daily activities that is monitored and provides a holistic rehabilitation plan. A crucial part of these activities must include abuse recovery and counselling, as well as confidence building skills. Heavy involvement if not leadership of such activities should be provided for by the specialist women’s sector. Other public bodies are also vital to the support of women offenders and their rehabilitation and such should be worked with in partnership. These include health and mental health serices, drug and alcohol services, housing, and the VAWG sector providing access and support around domestic abuse and sexual violence.
It is absolutely necessary to provide specialised women’s services to vulnerable women who end up in the criminal justice system.
Increased funding for non-custodial alternatives to prisons (e.g. community service facilities, sheltered housing, alcohol recovery units) together with greater use of the existing sentencing alternatives (e.g. deferred sentence, community service order, probation with a condition of psychiatric treatment), with the aim of removing from prisons all who are there primarily because of drunkenness, drug dependency, mental, emotional and/or sexual abuse, homelessness or inability to pay a fine needs to be, together with the above needs of action, an urgent aim of the Labour Party.
In order to tackle the ‘underlying biases’ within the system there needs to be public recognition first and foremost of the structural racism and sexism at the very core of the criminal justice system and that this is the central reason for the injustices women and black people (both including black women) suffer. This explains the double standards between men and women and white men and black men and women when it comes to every stage of the justice system, from investigation and arrest to the discriminatory sentencing of women and black people. Labour needs to name the issue as what it is, racism and sexism, and treat this with zero tolerance as is expected of the Labour Party and of a Labour government.
Actions which need to take place imminently to improve the criminal justice system so that is provides justice for all are: a review and overhaul of the existing methods of recruitment, training and supervision of those working in the system including judges and prison staff, aimed at reducing their present discriminatory practices against women from black and ethnic minority backgrounds and lesbian, disabled or mentally or emotionally-disturbed women, as well as the removal of persons who practice racism and sexism, removal being the practical application of zero tolerance of racism and sexism.
Also necessary is recognition that the system is, in addition to racist and sexist, anti-working class. It is clear that the poorest and most disadvantaged members of society are dragged into a cycle of criminality and offending and this also requires urgently addressing. Sentencing individuals due to poverty should never be an outcome sought and definitely not under a Labour government.