The government has announced its intention to spend £150 million on building 500 new prison places for women. If ever a public spending project promised to bring increased misery this is it!
In 2012 I (Rona) published research on the rights of the child when mothers are sentenced in the UK criminal courts. In this research I pointed out that under the Human Rights Act the rights of the child to a private life - which must include the right to the care of her/his parent - were engaged when a parent with care is sentenced. I called for consideration of these rights during the sentencing process to become statutory law. Dr Shona Minson has also produced training materials to inform all sentencers and the legal professions on the processes which should be carried out before a mother is sentenced. These developments should have led to far lower numbers of mothers sent to prison. That did not happen.
Too many women who have dependent children are imprisoned for non-violent and minor offences. In 2017, we (Lucy Baldwin and Rona Epstein) published our study on mothers sent to prison for short periods. We reported the devastating and long-lasting effects on children of the short prison sentences imposed on their mothers. There is considerable evidence of the danger imprisonment poses to pregnant women and the unborn child.
The Public Accounts Committee has stated, "Community alternatives to prison have shown to be effective for women, but to date have been starved of investment". This investment should be made without delay. The £150 million pledged for new prison places for women should instead be invested in community services.
The Government should:
Bring sentencing guidelines requiring judges and magistrates to consider the best interests of children when sentencing primary carers and pregnant women onto statute in order to guarantee the rights of dependent children and maintain family ties, which is key to reducing reoffending.
End the use of Joint Enterprise laws which enable sentences to be passed down to multiple defendants for a single offence based on weak circumstantial inferences. Research found that in 90 per cent of cases, women had no involvement in the violence for which they were convicted and in 50 per cent of cases women were not present at the scene.
Retrospectively abolish Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection (IPPs), converting all IPPs to determinate sentences and removing the life-long licence which sees high numbers of people unjustly recalled to prison.
End imprisonment for debt by stopping custodial sentences for non-payment of council tax and fines associated with using a TV without a licence.
End the use of remand to prison for women’s ‘own protection’ by abolishing the power under the Bail Act 1976.
Strengthen the custody threshold so that sentences can’t be escalated due to previous convictions, and to ensure short prison sentences are not given where a community-based order would be sufficient.
Introduce a statutory defence for women whose alleged offending was driven by domestic abuse. Many women have been unjustly criminalised for actions linked to their abuse and the sentencing process has proved ineffective at uncovering the effects and histories of this trauma.
No new prison places for women: invest in women's centres instead
There should be no new prison spaces for women, the numbers in custody must be reduced not increased. This is achievable, with goodwill, common sense and the proper investment in community support as an alternative to imprisonment. There are urgent calls for expenditure on the needs of women at risk of entry into the criminal justice system, and the funds that could go to prison building should go to this.
The women's refuges who shelter women fleeing domestic violence are having to refuse places to desperate women. The women's centres which support vulnerable women and keep them from entering the criminal justice system are severely constrained by lack of adequate, secure funding. To build prison places now would be to turn our backs on the very services that keep women out of prison and would inflict damage on our social fabric.
Yes, there may be more police active in the future: they can play a constructive role in protecting women experiencing domestic abuse, and could also be used to divert women from prosecution and direct them to the services that would support them, particularly mental health services and substance abuse services. That is if these services exist. That means investment on a large scale. Prison building is moving in the opposite direction. It would be a brutal, and thoroughly anti-social policy.
If these facts were more widely known, and the public were better informed about the causes and drivers of women’s imprisonment, would there be the same appetite for sending more women to prison?
It causes many more issues than it resolves; the use of even short sentences doesn’t resolve the complex issues that many women face both before and after imprisonment. It doesn’t resolve the tragedy and legacy of sexual abuse, domestic abuse, coercive controlling relationships, the impact of being in care as a child. It doesn’t resolve issues around mental ill health, drug addiction, learning disabilities, poverty and marginalisation.
These are the commonalities of the histories of the women who enter our prison system and they leave with the majority of those issues still impacting their lives and come out to more that have been added – criminal records, loss of homes and jobs, stigmatisation and damaged children. More prisons won't resolve these issues, but more investment in support and care will.
Paula describes herself as an activist and creative Iived experience leader; her passion for this work stemming from lived experience in the justice system 2004-2012.
Rona Epstein is Honorary Research Fellow Coventry Law School