The Female Offender Strategy is a start, says Oonagh Ryder, but we need to end any use of punishment as a response to women's needs
Last week, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) published its long-awaited Female Offender Strategy. The strategy was first announced in the 2016 White Paper, Prison Safety and Reform, before disappearing into the inner workings of the MoJ for so long that campaigners and women’s organisations started to wonder if it had been scrapped altogether. Two years and three justice secretaries later, it has finally surfaced, to a cautiously warm reception from reformers and the voluntary sector.
Most significantly, the MoJ has jettisoned a key element of the strategy as it was outlined in the White Paper, the building of five new community prisons for women.
This is an important victory for the many campaigners who refused to capitulate on their demand for no new women’s prisons. Such hard work and strategic decision-making made it untenable for the MoJ to announce it was building new prisons, knowing how many influential campaigners and women’s organisations it would enrage with this move.
As well as the scrapping of the five new prisons, reformers and voluntary organisations have welcomed the strategy's emphasis on community sentences for women and its commitment to developing ‘residential women’s centres’ for those leaving prison or ‘at risk of offending’.
Few concrete measures
However, despite media coverage suggesting that only women convicted of serious crimes will now be sent to prison, the strategy actually provides very little in terms of concrete measures to bring the prison population down. The section on training the police to encourage diversion of women out of the criminal justice system fails to address the issue of where these women will be diverted to, after years of under-funding and closures in the voluntary and statutory sectors.
Similarly, the plan to train probation officers to write better pre-sentencing reports begs the question of how this training will be put to use with recent court closures and the implementation of ‘speedy justice’ often leaving probation officers with less than two hours to carry out, write up and file an assessment. As campaigners have been patiently repeating for years, without huge reform to policing, the only reliable way to reduce the numbers in prison is sentencing reform - an option the MoJ continues to reject.
With no confirmation that community sentences will be used instead of, rather than alongside, prison sentences, the commitment to expand punishment to the community is worrying. The MoJ’s own case studies, used in the strategy, paint a picture of women who have faced extreme levels of violence and abandonment – both from those around them and from the state.
It is jarring to read the history of a woman who has experienced child sexual abuse, homelessness and suicide attempts, followed by a suggestion that she should be offered mental health support and drug treatment only under threat of further punishment by the criminal justice system. As the criminologist Linda Moore said, poverty, mental health issues and experiences of abuse should not be described as 'pathways to offending' but understood as breaches of women’s rights. All women should have unconditional access to the services they need to heal from trauma, without having to go through the trauma of arrests and court appearances to get it.
Punishment in the community
Research by the Centre for Crime and Justice studies shows that, far from reducing the prison population, the increased use of community punishments has “expanded the net of criminalisation of punishment exacerbating rather than resolving social harms”. Instead of providing alternatives to custody, these sentences simply increase the number of criminalised people by providing punitive responses to low level offending. As refuges and therapeutic services close down and stable accommodation becomes near impossible to access, more and more women are reaching crisis point. Rather than prevent imprisonment being used as a solution to this crisis, the expansion of community sentences could lead to even more women being processed through the criminal justice system and sucked into a cycle of punishment and crisis.
While £50 million had originally been earmarked by the MoJ for the five new prisons, only £5 million of this has been allocated for the residential centres and community services promised by the strategy. Women’s organisations and other charities have rightly pointed out that £5 million over two years is nowhere near enough to fund good quality provision and have questioned the disappearance of the other £45 million. This has led voluntary sector members of the MoJ’s Advisory Board on Female Offenders to write a letter to the Secretary of State for Justice, urging him to allocate £20 million of additional funds to the ‘community provision’ promised in the strategy. While this is an understandable move from a sector struggling to survive after years of austerity, it is not at all clear that more money alone will improve the situation for criminalised women.
As many in the voluntary sector will be painfully aware, it is extremely difficult (perhaps impossible) to do social justice work with criminal justice money. When funding is tied to criminal justice-focused targets such as reducing reoffending, probation licence completion and ‘criminogenic factors’, the genuine wellbeing of human beings sits on the backburner. In a recent article for Open Democracy, Inquest’s Head of Policy Rebecca Roberts detailed how the number of self-inflicted deaths of people on probation rose by 488% between 2010 and 2017. She pointed out that, with probation companies incentivised to reduce the risk of reoffending, the question of whether their clients are actually surviving isn’t factored into the definition of ‘success’. In seeking resources from a system set up to control and punish, the voluntary sector runs the risk of being further entangled in an agenda that locates social problems in the deficits of individuals whilst ignoring the structures that are literally killing them.
Voluntary organisations and campaigners should take courage from their success in removing the option of building new prisons from the table and continue to push further, not just to prevent the imprisonment of women but to end the use of punishment and conditionality as a response to need. While the MoJ’s statement of intention to provide more support to ‘vulnerable’ women is a positive step, the next challenge is to make clear that support and criminalisation cannot co-exist.
All women must have unconditional access to the resources and the services they need to survive and to thrive.
There is optimism in the sector about the new potential to reduce the women’s prison population. However, a community approach that is funded by the criminal justice system runs the very real risk of bringing the logic and the harm of the prison into the community. Now the battle over expanding the women’s prison estate has been won, we must focus our attention on the struggle against the dehumanising violence of criminalisation in all its forms.
Oonagh Ryder is the host of the Lockdown Podcast at Novara Media