The statistics

The following statistics should be borne in mind the next time you see a woman charged with a non-violent offence. It may give a perspective to her offending:

  • More than 50 per cent of women in prison have a child under 16 and more than a third have  a child under five. Since a third of them are the sole/primary carers, over 18,000 children a year are separated from their mothers as a result of that imprisonment and many end up in care. It is estimated that the cost of keeping an offender in prison is approximately £40,000 pa, whilst to keep a child in local authority foster care costs £25,000 pa.
  • There is no women’s prison in Wales so young children who are separated have lengthy journeys to visit their mothers.
  • The most common offences committed by imprisoned women are theft and handling. These account for 32 per cent of receptions.
  • In the last five years there has been a rise of 13 per cent in women receiving short prison sentences. For example, between 1 September 2009 and 28 October 2009, 34 women had been remanded/sentenced to Styal Prison for one to seven days with untold disruption to their domestic lives including loss of children and accommodation. Evidence led research suggests that short prison sentences (of 12 months or less) does not reduce offending and may actively encourage it.
  • Around 50 per cent of the women in prison report that prior to imprisonment they have experienced some type of domestic/sexual abuse.
  • A third of the women have been sexually abused and a fifth have been in care.


A revolving door

As the statistics show, at least half of women in prison if not more, are vulnerable, having been victims themselves of violence and/or sexual abuse and probably also a long term disruptive family background. Many have children for whom they are the primary carers. They are imprisoned for non-violent offences such as dishonesty which are usually linked to their social and economic circumstances.
It all adds up to a picture of women caught in a revolving door from which they cannot extricate themselves without the support of a more humane method of dealing with their offending. This must take into account the major factors that influence and often shape their offending, in particular their deeply engrained and natural responsibility for their children.

One Home Office study showed that for 85 per cent of mothers, prison was the first time they had been separated from their children for any significant period. The trauma to the child separated in such circumstances is no doubt not only significant but may well have far-reaching catastrophic consequences. It should not pass unnoticed in this respect that a fifth of women in custody have themselves been in care. In other words the revolving door continues to revolve.


Alternative sanctions and disposals

Chapter 5 of the Corston Report considered the overuse of custody for women setenced and on remand, and concluded that alternative sanctions and disposals that were gender specific were required. It made following recommendations:

  • Custodial sentences for women must be reserved for serious and violent offenders who pose a threat to the public.
  • Women unlikely to receive a custodial sentence should not be remanded in custody.
  • Women must never be sent to prison for their own good, to teach them a lesson, for their own safety or to access services such as detoxification.
  • More supported bail placements for women suitable to their needs must be provided.
  • Defendants who are primary carers of young children should be remanded in custody only after consideration of a probation report on the probable impact on the children.
  • Community solutions for non-violent women offenders should be the norm.
  • Community sentences must be designed to take account of women’s particular vulnerabilities and domestic and childcare commitments.
  • Sentencers must be informed about the existence and nature of those schemes that do exist and should support and visit them.
  • The restrictions placed on sentencers around breaches of community orders must be made more flexible as a matter of urgency.
  • Section 178 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003  should be implemented more generally.
  • Bail information schemes in women’s prisons must be properly monitored resourced and used.


Impact on family life

In January 2010 I visited Styal Prison and during my time there I was continually struck by something that should be obvious to us all, namely that when the female prisoners spoke to me freely of their past and present circumstances, any mention by them of their children and the often self-inflicted separation was guaranteed to bring tears to their eyes. Many did not want the children to suffer the disruption and heartache of visiting and then again being separated from their mothers at the end of the visit.

The Prison Reform Trust noted in 2006 that only half of the women who had lived with or were in contact with their children prior to imprisonment had received a visit from them while they were on remand or serving their sentence. One young mother I met at Styal was distraught as she had left her four-year-old son to be collected from school the previous day by a friend. Having been arrested and held overnight and then remanded in custody to Styal for shoplifting, the whereabouts of her son was now unknown. She had not revealed her plight either to those representing her or anyone in authority, as she was afraid he would be taken into care. This is apparently a common dilemma amongst women prisoners.

All too often women are remanded in custody by the courts as some form of immediate drug programme or as a seemingly knee jerk reaction to their offending, without fully appreciating the real underlying deep rooted causes beneath their offending, leaving the prisons to cope as best they can with prisoners who are emotionally distraught at being separated from their families as well as withdrawing from drugs whilst remanded.

Credit must be given to the way in which the female prisoners were treated at Styal Prison by the governor, Clive Chatterton, and by his staff. Governor Chatterton had considerable previous experience within the male prison system, but was dismayed by the numbers of women who were either remanded or sentenced for short periods of imprisonment. He and his staff treat the women with exceptional dignity and kindnesses whilst the women are often struggling to cope with drug related and mental health issues which were far outside the staff’s remit or expertise and training. It is not the fault of the judiciary who are doing the best they can in difficult and uninformed circumstances. Nor is it the fault of Governor Chatterton and his staff that many women re-offend and incessantly return for short periods to Styal. What is needed are offence and gender specific alternatives to remands and short custodial sentences. As Governor Chatterton put it, “short sentences are just as destructive and have an equally devastating effect on family lives as far longer sentences, if not worse”.


Alternatives to prison

The Nelson Trust, one of the longest established drug and alcohol absistence treatment providers in the UK, has through its own researches confirmed the findings of the Corston Report that emphasised the three areas of vulnerability in relation to women offending, namely domestic, personal and socio economic. It has established a women’s service in a dedicated residential unit as part of the government’s Diversion Programme, a key part of the government’s strategy in response to the Corston recommendations. The courts need the assistance of more such organisations. The probation service continues to play a crucially important role in diverting women from custody and it is critical that this is given proper recognition and expanded. When the judiciary are presented with informed real alternatives, at the initial and preliminary stages of court proceedings, the result may well be a real reduction in the numbers of remands in custody/short terms of imprisonment. Community options at every stage of the court process have an important role to play in the treatment of women defendants and in the eventual disposal of their cases, and will have a significant effect on their reoffending. Successful recent examples include SWAN in Northamptonshire, a project working with sex workers; the Women’s Turnaround Project in Wales which is part of the Intensive Alternatives to Custody Pilot; and the Women in Prison Project who assist with housing, education, child proceedings, domestic violence and mental health problems and campaign for more community sentences for women. 


The way forward

It is clear that women are suffering disproportionately and effectively serving harsher sentences as they are being held in a prison system originally designed by men for men which has not been re-adjusted to cater for their needs and vulnerabilities especially when such a high proportion of them are victims. A more considered and humane approach is urgently needed which takes account of their gender specific needs. This will also be in accordance with the government’s equality duty pursuant to existing equalities legislation.
Any new approach needs the introduction of the following:

  • Greater use of community sentences for women, with particular emphasis on their past and whether or not they are victims and vulnerable. 
  • Electronic monitoring and curfew can be part of a community order including—as recommended in the Corston Report—offence specific solutions, such as drug referral orders, prostitution or theft referral orders for minor shoplifting offences.
  • Greater emphasis and regard to be given in sentencing on the likely short and long term effect on the children of women who are imprisoned.
  • Custodial sentences for women should be reserved for those who pose a threat to the public.

Those who are regularly involved in the administration of justice in the criminal courts can play their all important role in the implementation of reform by not only being aware of the above statistics but by asking themselves: Does this woman “pose a threat to the public?” and balancing that question against the needs of her children and the far-reaching consequences of her being imprisoned, albeit for a short time.

Kim Hollis QC, Chair of the Association of Women Barristers, practices criminal law from 25 Bedford Row, London.