On 25 November 2015, the Justice Secretary Michael Gove announced that he was planning to close HMP Holloway. What a good idea!
It chimes in well with the government’s recent statement in response to the Justice Select Committee’s report on women. Caroline Dinenage MP, minister for women, equalities and family justice, has also said she wants to see fewer women in prison.
The children of mothers in prison
Fewer available prison places for women would mean fewer mothers sent to prison for minor offences. The imprisonment of mothers of a dependent child interferes with the child’s right to parental care under Article 8 of the European Convention.
As I explain in Mothers in Prison, where a court is considering a custodial sentence for a mother of a dependent child, the court must balance the rights of the child against the seriousness of the mother’s offence and the need to punish the offender.
If the court has insufficient information to enable it to carry out the balancing exercise it must ask for more information. The Court of Appeal has also stressed the rights of affected children.
What is the point of Holloway and other prisons for women?
In March 2007 Baroness Corston published the Corston Review, commissioned by the Home Office to look into the treatment of vulnerable women in the criminal justice system. This seminal document led to important developments, in particular the establishment of Women’s Centres, where women who had offended or who were at risk of offending were offered a range of supportive interventions.
These have been found to be very effective and to be a positive alternative to the more expensive and highly destructive pathway of incarceration. Insecure funding is a huge problem for the centres: excellent as they are, they are always having to worry about the funding to continue their work.
However, Baroness Corston’s key recommendation was not acted upon. It was that the existing system of women’s prisons should be dismantled and replaced by smaller secure units for the minority of women from whom the public require protection.
Why not? Perhaps because of inertia and general resistance to change, a punitive mind-set which pervades the media, public opinion and the criminal justice system in general, and perhaps a wish to exert control on women seen as challenging and difficult.
Close all large women's prisons
Yes, Mr Gove, do sell HMP Holloway, and then go on to close all the large women’s prisons. Don’t replace them with new large women’s prisons.
Invest the money obtained in setting up and funding adequately the Women’s Centres, as recommended by Baroness Corston. There should be many more Women’s Centres. They should have adequate funds to recruit and train the staff they require.
We should invest in them and value the way they work non-punitively with the vast majority of women offenders, who present no danger to the public and who have many social, personal and health problems and whose complex needs should be addressed in the interests of us all.
Rona Epstein is an Honorary Research Fellow at Coventry University.