Justice: Women’s Centres - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:56 pm on 12th September 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Corston Baroness Corston Labour 6:56 pm, 12th September 2018

My Lords, I congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester on securing this debate. I was absolutely delighted when she was appointed Bishop to women’s prisons. It is a post that she has embraced with commitment and enthusiasm.

There are currently just under 4,000 women in our prisons. They serve short sentences. In 2016, 271 of them served sentences of less than two weeks. Some 45% of those on remand do not get a custodial sentence. Six weeks on remand is long enough for them to lose both home and children—and they often get neither back. Nearly three-quarters of them have a mental health condition. Their addictions encompass alcohol and prescription and illegal substances, and sometimes a combination of all three. At least half of them are victims of sexual and domestic violence. They are 30 times more likely than women in the general population to commit suicide on release. In 2016, 22 women took their lives in our prisons, the highest number for years. Their self-harm rates are shocking. Every year, 17,000 children are affected by their mother’s imprisonment. These women are troubled, not troublesome. Prison does not and cannot do anything for them.

My report was published 11 years ago, in 2007. I recommended that our women’s prisons should be closed and that we should have a network of women’s centres and small custodial units. There was a handful of centres in 2006. When Jack Straw was the Home Secretary, £15.6 million was committed as seed corn money to build a network of women’s centres, and there are now more than 50. The reduction in the subsequent numbers of women in prison enabled the following Government to close two women’s prisons and save a lot of money. Centres have admirable recidivism rates, which were acknowledged by the Ministry of Justice a couple of years after my report. Centres deal with all the issues arising from these women’s chaotic lives all under one roof: debt, mental health, addiction, parenting, abuse and cooking. It is harder than being in prison; let no one think this is a soft option.

I remember visiting a centre and meeting a woman who was 41. She had been in and out of trouble with the police since she was 15 years old. I asked her why she was there, and she said that some magistrate had realised that it was pointless to keep sending her to prison. She said that she had forgotten how many times she was in prison, but every time she had been in prison there was someone she could blame: “If my mother had protected me, if my stepfather hadn’t done that to me, if I hadn’t had to run away from home, if I hadn’t been pimped into prostitution, if I hadn’t become a drug addict, if I hadn’t started assaulting people in the street for money—every single time, I could blame someone else”. She said, “Coming here, the centre has challenged me and said, ‘But what is your role? What have you done that makes you end up here, losing two of your children to adoption without consent and the possibility of living with your little boy of three?’”.

I asked her what her experience had been. She said, “It is much, much harder than being in prison”. A lot of people think this is a ridiculous question, but it is one I often ask women in prison. I said, “Have you always liked yourself?” She said, “No”. “Do you like yourself now?” She thought for a bit and said, “Yes”. I said, “In that case, you are going to be all right”.

About seven years ago, I was listening to “Weekend Woman’s Hour” on a Saturday afternoon. There was an item about two women who had been in women’s centres. They were asked about what happened and they said that, on reception, they had to fill in a form which they thought was total rubbish. It asked questions such as, “What did you want to be when you grew up? Are your children proud of you? Are you still in touch with your school friends?” They went through the women’s centre regime, and one was now in full-time education and the other was in work, in her own accommodation with one of her children. The interviewer asked the right last question—lawyers know that sometimes your last question can defeat your case. This interviewer asked, “You told me that these forms were rubbish. What has happened to them?” One had it on her fridge, and the other had it on her bedroom wall. I think that illustrates that those women understood what those centres had done for them.

When I was conducting my review, I asked the number cruncher in the Home Office—the department then responsible for the women’s estate—how much it cost to keep a woman in prison for a year. He told me £70,000. At that time, a place in the Asha Centre in Worcester—which has since closed because of the effect of Transforming Rehabilitation—was £750 a year. I know which was the more effective. Unfortunately, Transforming Rehabilitation has had a dire effect on many women’s centres. The contracts which community rehabilitation companies impose on them are oppressive, with gagging clauses and £10,000 fees to alter a clause. Many, such as Alana House in Reading, have stopped working with women offenders because they cannot comply with this regime. We need this Government to acknowledge the success of women’s centres and to recognise that, in Scotland, they are doing what I suggested and that they are working.

Finally, I offer my very best wishes to the noble Baroness, Lady Sater, for her maiden speech.