Prison Reform — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:41 pm on 21st January 2016.

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Photo of Baroness Healy of Primrose Hill Baroness Healy of Primrose Hill Labour 12:41 pm, 21st January 2016

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, on securing this debate on prison reform at this critical time as pressure increases on staff in our overcrowded prisons.

I wish to raise the issue of women in prison. There is a growing consensus that most of the solutions to women’s offending lie outside prison walls, in treatment for addictions and mental health problems, protection from domestic violence and coercive relationships, secure housing, debt management, education, skills development and employment. I acknowledge the Government’s commitment to reduce the number of women sent to prison, but there are still far too many being incarcerated. Across the UK, more than 13,500 women are imprisoned each year. On 15 January this year, there were 3,817 women in prison, accounting for 4.5% of the total prison population. Women on remand account for one in six of the female prison population, and although less than half of those found guilty are given a prison sentence, the damage to family life has already been done. Six in 10 women in prison have dependent children, and 17,000 children are separated from their mothers each year.

The Government’s review of sentencing policy is a key opportunity to encourage more community sentences for women with children. The Prison Reform Trust has proposed practical steps such as ensuring pre-sentence reports provide enough information about the woman’s circumstances, including her caring responsibilities, to make courts aware of appropriate community-based sentencing options. Magistrates are still too unaware of community alternatives where they do exist and are reluctant to refer where they see poor services or fragmented support.

I welcome the Sentencing Council’s definitive guideline on theft offences, which encourages the use of community orders where appropriate and which will come into effect next month. Most women are sent to prison for a non-violent offence, and the majority of these are for theft and handling. The average sentence for theft from a shop—the primary driver to women’s imprisonment in 2015—was less than three months.

As is now widely acknowledged, prison does not reduce offending. More than half—51%—of all women leaving prison are reconvicted with 12 months, and for those serving less than 12 months, the reconviction rate rises to 62%. Not only do children suffer while their mothers are imprisoned, but on release from these short sentences employment outcomes for women are three times worse than for men. Fewer than one in 10 women have a job to go to on release.

Prison is not the answer to women’s offending, except in rare, violent circumstances. Specialist women’s services, on the other hand, have been shown to be highly effective in supporting and rehabilitating women in contact with the penal system. Women receiving community orders have much lower reoffending rates, and there is an even greater reduction in reoffending for those who receive support from women’s centres, according to the MoJ’s own figures. Steps must be taken to increase the funding of women’s centres, prohibit the use of short-term sentences under 12 months, limit the use of remand and reduce recalls to custody where there have been technical breaches of an offender’s licence. Where the terms of a non-custodial sentence disregard a woman’s responsibility for children, there is an increased risk of breach for non-compliance, which can lead to custodial sentences being imposed where imprisonment was outside the sentencing parameters for the original offence. This is surely wrong.

Finally, on the proposed closure of Holloway, there is widespread concern that moving women to another prison further away from many women’s homes, therefore reducing access for families and resettlement opportunities, could result in worsening the rehabilitation prospects for those women, many of whom are vulnerable, have committed non-violent offences and have so often been victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse themselves. The implications of what the Government may see as a well-meaning improvement could have damaging outcomes, as there was no or little consultation with staff and other stakeholders, I am told.

The Prison Reform Trust has called for the current visitors centre on the Holloway site to become a women’s centre providing support and supervision for women caught up in the justice system in London. Several women’s centres across London are urgently needed to support women upon release. Could the Minister tell the House how much resource is going to be used rebuilding prisons for women compared to providing the more effective community alternatives to custody?