Prison is supposed to be hard. It is, after all, a punishment. But it’s also designed to help people address their behaviour and stop them re-offending. When imprisonment leads to more offending, it isn’t working.
The specific problems faced by women have been highlighted recently by the Farmer Review for Women. Lord Farmer hopes to improve women’s experience within the criminal justice system with the aim of reducing re-offending.
But it isn’t just about prisoners. A previous study by Lord Farmer on male prisoners found 63% of male prisoners’ sons went on to offend themselves and adult children of imprisoned mothers are even more likely to be convicted.
The problems revolve mainly around the breakdown of family relationships, particularly as women are often primary carers, that flow from a spell in custody, whether on remand or in prison.
The Report found that women who receive family visits are 39% less likely to reoffend, and so the importance of alleviating these problems is obvious.
What are the problems?
Any custodial stay, whether the first night in the cells or five-year prison sentence, can have a devastating effect on several areas of a person’s life.
Relationships with all family members, particularly with children and partners, suffer badly when one member of that unit is taken away for an extended period.
This is made worse by the fact that women are held on average 63 miles from home, increasing the difficulty of prison visits.
Anxiety of mothers and primary carers in custody is increased due to separation from the children, especially where the mother is the sole carer. Children are the first priority in this situation, and the Report found that little progress can be made with the prisoner until this anxiety is dealt with.
Domestic violence also is recognised for its huge impact on women’s lives, tying in to relationships and possible causes of offending.
What can be done to help?
The Report recognises that the early intervention in a wide range of circumstances including mental health, relationship breakdown, substance misuse, education and debt can all help to prevent offending.
It makes a number of recommendations to strengthen female offender’s family and other relationships to prevent re-offending and reduce intergenerational crime.
Earlier intervention to address the vulnerabilities of some women which can lead to them coming into contact with the criminal justice system and diverting them from it. If women had ready access to services and good peer support networks, it could prevent offending and the repetition of the cycle by children.
A specific recommendation is to create a personal circumstances file for a woman so that information can be shared through trusted organisations such as the police and local authority, NHS and Victim Support.
A renewed focus on alternative accommodation is required, bail hostels are currently geared towards men and prohibit children living there or visiting them. These restrictions need to be reviewed by the government and women in hostels need to be referred to services to assist with parenting or relationship issues where appropriate.
Pre-sentence reports should be mandatory for all women (and male primary carers) if a custodial sentence is a possibility. The report would clarify the repercussions of a custodial sentence on dependants and put forward detail of mitigating factors such as domestic abuse.
Women sentenced to custody or remanded must be given the opportunity to make telephone contact with dependents and organise childcare before being put onto transport. Consideration should be given to primary care or other relationships before a woman is remanded as even a short remand can have devastating effect on families, tenancies and the ability to provide for family.
The development of custodial centres should be a long-term strategy, used for women whose crime is serious enough to merit a custodial sentence but who are low enough risk to retain care of their children.
Where a custodial term is inevitable there are many recommendations to enhance rather than break down family ties. Such recommendations as improvements to the Assisted Prison Visits scheme and space for private family visits.
Some of the most frequent issues raised by women prisoners were access to release on temporary licence (ROTL) and child resettlement licence (CRL).To address this ROTL could be used far more frequently and creatively to help women fulfil caring responsibilities and aid resettlement, CRL could be widened to include other family circumstances and not just rest on sole carer status.
To aid communication during sentences the operation of prisoner email schemes needs to be consistent and all female prisons to develop an email reply system so that children do not think they are being ignored if no reply is received. Virtual visits and in cell telephony should be utilised to supplement face to face visits.
The cost of the recommendations is balanced throughout, for example, by the savings from keeping women out of the prison system and the cost saved by children not being cared for by social services. There are certainly a number of interesting recommendations, but it remains to be seen whether they are put into place.
In the meantime, our advocates will ensure that a comprehensive picture is presented to any sentencing court.
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