How can we keep women out of jail?

As part of our series of blogs about the upcoming vote on WI resolutions (for more details, see our earlier blog post), we examine to the funding (or lack of) that is provided to help vulnerable women and keep them out of prison. We’re writing these posts to kick-start the debate about these issues in advance of our November meeting; they don’t reflect any particular view or an ‘official’ view of the Sotonettes Committee so please read them with that in mind.  We want to know what our members think so please let us know on Facebook or Twitter.

“The Justice Select Committee, which has undertaken an inquiry into women offenders, has criticised Ministry of Justice rehabilitation reforms for failing to respond to the specific needs of women offenders. The NFWI therefore urges HMG to provide proper funding for a women’s centre in every local authority area to cater for the needs of vulnerable women, including offenders and those at risk of offending.”

Across the UK, more than 13,500 women are imprisoned each year; between 1995 and 2010 the UK’s women’s prison population has more than doubled. Evidence consistently shows that the best way to reduce women’s offending rates lies far away from prison: effective treatment of addiction and other mental health issues, protecting women from domestic violence, giving women secure housing, debt management counselling, skills development, education and employment. Women who gain help outside of prison are able to gain the skills to take control of their lives, look after their children and address the reasons behind their offending. Prison is rarely necessary and is far more expensive in the long term but successive budget cuts have eaten away at these services, leaving them with an uncertain future.

Imprisonment, and the resulting loss of accommodation, employment, and often their positions are key factors in reoffending. In fact, more than half of all women are re-convicted within 12 months. Access to support for women outside of prison and non-custodial sentences give women the chance to break the cycle of offending and re-offending which leaves them ending up in and out of prison their entire lives.

This resolution lies at the heart of the WI’s commitment to campaign on issues affecting women and girls. Women are more likely to be imprisoned for non-violent offences, more likely to be imprisoned for a first offence and dramatically more likely to be imprisoned for less than a year. The WI already has a commitment to helping women who are imprisoned; Surrey Federation even operates a branch in HMP Bronzefield where prisoners and staff alike are members. Women’s centres and other community provision provide a route away from crime for vulnerable women and would help tackle the root causes of crime. The WI could help provide strategic leadership on this issue as specific work on ways to tackle women’s offending has rarely been felt. While there have been positive statements on this issue, it lacks momentum, and this is something which the WI could provide.

However, it could be that this issue is not one where the WI is really needed. Justice Committee reporting suggests it is already on the government agenda. Also, it could be replication of work that individual WIs are already doing. Many of them support shelters and other institutions in their local communities for vulnerable women. While these issues are ones the WI are interested in, this resolution may not be the best way to go about helping.

For more information, see the Justice Select Committee report.