Women offenders review 'painfully slow'

Too many women are being locked up, campaigners say
Too many women are being locked up, campaigners say

Government action on reforming prison conditions for women are "painfully slow" a pressure group has said.

The Ministry of Justice today revealed its progress towards the recommendations made by the Corston review of women in prison, but campaigners and opposition groups are saying its actions have so far been inadequate.

Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: "It's clear that this government is so busy planning how to waste billions of public money on so-called 'titan' prisons that it cannot find the time or money to create a decent, effective justice system for women."

The criticism follows a letter sent to the government from a wide range of charities and pressure groups calling for prosecutors to not jail women offenders.

The groups, which included the Bromley Trust and the Diana Memorial Fund, want to see incarceration greatly decreased as a form of sentencing and the introduction of alternatives, such as local supervision and support centres.

They say only five per cent of children remain in the family home when their mother is imprisoned, and that this often creates a new generation of criminal activity. For the woman, separation from their children greatly increases the likelihood of suicide and self-harm.

But some groups have reacted angrily to the proposals.

Matt O'Connor, founder of Father4Justice, told politics.co.uk: "Removing women from the home obviously destroys families but somehow when fathers are removed some people think the same thing doesn't happen.

"We would say it does. Removing either parent from the home has a damaging effect on the children, but if someone does the crime, they do the time - regardless of gender," he continued.

"There is the view of a very vociferous minority that women are always the victim.

"You shouldn't treat men and women unequally, they should be treated the same.

"Unless of course, someone is advocating a gender apartheid in which men and women should be treated differently under the law. That's troubling because then you'd have mothers treated as first-class parents and fathers treated as second-class parents," he concluded.

Despite being unwilling to go as far as some pressure groups would like, the Ministry of Justice clearly disagrees. It has been moving towards a "robust" community sentencing structure for some time now and the announcement does include some new initiatives.

These include a pilot of a new kind of prison search in which women are not required to remove their underwear - often an intimidating and traumatic process for women who have suffered domestic violence or sexual abuse.

There are also initiatives to integrate community-based services and specific guidance for offender managers in dealing with women offenders.

In a carefully worded statement Maria Eagle, justice minister, said: "We have taken several steps so far to produce plans on diverting women offenders from custody into community provision where that is appropriate.

"For those women who really do need to be imprisoned, we are dedicated to ensuring they are held in conditions that are appropriate and meets women's needs. We also committed £40 million this year to ensure magistrates have tough and effective community sentences at their disposal."

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson told politics.co.uk the trend towards community punishments was in place well before the letter from penal reform and women's groups was received.

Nevertheless, the Prison Reform Trust has described the progress as "painfully slow".

It says the improvements are "piecemeal" and "small scale". It also points to the lack of an overall plan and budget as an indication of the government's attitude to the reforms.

They are supported by the Liberal Democrats, who say government progress is simply too slow.

Lib Dem justice spokesperson David Howarth said: "The attention being given to the plight of women in prison is long overdue, but we are still not seeing the urgent action which is needed.

"Instead, the government continues to send more and more women to prison every year. Since 1997, the population has soared by 41 per cent, with half of women prisoners in custody for non-violent offences.

"With over 70 per cent of women in prison suffering from mental health problems, it is clear that prison is the wrong place for the vast majority of them."


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