Women Offenders and Older Prisoners

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:39 pm on 16th January 2014.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Madeleine Moon Madeleine Moon Labour, Bridgend 3:39 pm, 16th January 2014

I apologise, Mr Amess, but I have to leave before the end of the debate, because I have to meet a distinguished visitor who is coming to address the Defence Committee. I shall be as brief as possible.

I have listened to one of the speeches in today’s debate more than once this week, and I have to say that I have not found myself agreeing with one iota of it on either occasion. I find it most worrying when people say that equality means sameness. Equality is not about things being the same. If it was, we would expect someone with a disability to be able to do the same as somebody who does not have a disability, and, if we asked them to do the same things, we would say that was because we were treating them equally, but we would not be treating them equally; we would be treating one of them unfairly. Equality is not about sameness.

I want to discuss why we use prison and the impact of prison on women. I have always thought that prison was there for risks of harm, and in particular for those people who are a risk to public safety. If we look at the figures from various research establishments, we will see that the majority of women prisoners are themselves victims. Many have been the victims of domestic violence or sexual abuse. Many are serving short, rather than long, sentences for the offences they have committed. Many are sentenced to community-based alternatives, with lower levels of expectation in those sentences, because the crimes they have committed have been less violent. To give some figures to show how violent offences among young girls have fallen, in 2006-07, there were just over 17,000 convictions for violent offences committed by young girls; in 2009-10, that figure was down to 13,000. It is also interesting to drill down into the figures and see the reasons why women’s offences are committed: for example, 48% of women’s offences were committed in support of someone else’s drug use, often a male partner’s.

Members will be aware that I have been concerned for some time about how we are using the criminal justice system instead of the mental health system to deal with people with mental health problems. A woman in prison is nearly twice as likely as a man to have had depression—65% of women in prison had depression before they were there, as opposed to 37% of men. The incidence of depression among women who have been convicted of offences is three times greater than among women in the general population. If we look at what the public want for women offenders, we find that they want more drug treatment, alcohol treatment and mental health treatment, and more debt advice, because it is generally accepted that those are the drivers of a large percentage of crimes committed by women.

In 2011 there were 1.2 million convictions, of which 24% were of women. According to the figures for why men and women have been convicted, 52% of the convictions for theft and handling of stolen goods were of women, and 33% were of men. Women are often engaged in petty theft—they are more often the shoplifters, and are more often shoplifting as a way of supplementing their household income or supporting a member of their family. It is not done for self-gain; it is a way of dealing with domestic and personal circumstances.

In 2011, 24,000 women in prison were self-harming. That rate was 10 times higher than the rate for men. As for the figures for mental health diagnosis, 30% of women had had a psychiatric admission before going to prison; 63% of women had been diagnosed with a neurotic or personality disorder, as opposed to 40% of men; and 14% of women had a psychotic disorder, as opposed to 7% of men. We are using our prison system to house women with mental health problems.

In a recent debate in this Chamber, we looked at the criminal justice system and how the police are increasingly having to deal with people with mental health problems because the health service refuses to deal with them, because they are seen as too violent or have a learning disability or drug or alcohol problem. As a result, those people end up in the criminal justice system. During that debate, I talked about a young person in my constituency. I want to highlight that young person again as an example of someone who should not be in the criminal justice system. We have been asked to talk about somebody who should not be in prison; well, she is a young person who should not be.

My constituent is 23. She is about a size 8. I have known her since she was a baby, and she is an absolute little darling, but she has quite severe mental health problems. When—and only when—she cannot cope, because she is in mental crisis and her brain is so dysfunctional that she cannot cope with life, she uses alcohol. The alcohol causes her behaviour and personality to change. Some time ago, she was placed under an antisocial behaviour order. The police have been called to 130 incidents in relation to this young person; she has been in court 81 times and has served 19 terms of imprisonment. She came out from her 18th term just after the debate on mental health and the criminal justice system that I initiated in this Chamber.

I had spoken to the police and the probation services about this young woman. Everybody was desperate for her not to go back into prison again—they knew it was wrong for her—but she is becoming so institutionalised now that prison is the place where the boundaries are there to contain her mental disorder. Just before Christmas, things went very badly wrong again and she went back to court. Everyone went to court to beg that she not be sent back to prison again, and she was sectioned. On Christmas day, she rang her parents and said, “I want to say goodbye.” She was in a psychiatric ward. Her parents got through to the main switchboard there and said, “For God’s sake, get to our daughter—she is going to kill herself.” When the staff broke into her room, she was unconscious, with a rope around her neck. Only by a miracle did they bring her back. A few days later, the psychiatrist decided that she had a personality disorder and discharged her. In desperation, she drank again and was sent back to prison.

That is a young person who should not be in the criminal justice system, and there must be many more like her. We are wasting vast amounts of money and we are wasting courts’ time serving sentences on such people in the criminal justice system, when in fact we ought to be using our health services to find appropriate treatment and care for such women and such people.