Our CEO, Bernie Bowen-Thomson, explains why the government’s plans for residential rehabilitation centres for female offenders is the right approach for women in Wales.
Last week it was announced that the government has scrapped plans for five women’s community prisons in Wales and England.
Instead, the Ministry of Justice will be trialling five residential centres that will focus on rehabilitating offenders, and has also promised to spend £5million over the next two years on community provisions for women.
At Safer Wales, we’ve spent the last 20 years working with women and girls in, or at risk of entering, the criminal justice system.
We work with South Wales Police to deliver our pathfinder service which helps to address the reasons why women commit crimes in the first place and, since 2016, 90 per cent of those we have engaged with did not go on to reoffend within six months.
This is remarkable when you consider that 51 per cent of women leaving prison will be reconvicted within a year, and among those on short sentences of less than 12 months, this rises to 62 per cent.
If one of the aims of prison is to reduce offending by women, it doesn’t work. In fact, given that roughly a quarter of female inmates have no previous conviction, sending a woman to prison increases the probability of her offending again.
Our experience has shown us that rehabilitating women within the community is the best approach for reducing reoffending rates and enabling often very vulnerable women the chance to turn their lives around.
All the evidence shows that women’s routes into criminality are very different, their needs are very different, and that short sentences – which have increased by 43 per cent in the last five years - have a disproportionate effect on women.
According to the Prison Reform Trust, female prisoners are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators: 46 per cent have suffered domestic violence and 53 per cent have experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse during childhood.
Additionally, because women are more likely to be single parents and the prime homemaker, they run a greater risk of ending up homeless after prison and losing access to their children.
The impact of this on a child can be huge, affecting not just their day-to-day stability but also their future health and wellbeing. Surely keeping families together wherever possible is the best solution for safeguarding future generations?
Rates of mental illness are also much higher among the female prison population: 30 per cent will have had a psychiatric admission before coming to prison, and 37 per cent have previously attempted suicide. This illustrates how vulnerable and distressed many women prisoners are, and how the system has failed these women when they end up serving short term sentences in prison.
The way our criminal justice system is managed effects everyone, not just offenders. In a time of austerity, we need to find solutions that work for the tax payer as well as those in need of rehabilitation.
In 2009/2010 keeping a woman in prison for one-year cost £56,415 while an equivalent community sentence cost just £1,360. If a woman’s children are placed in care, the cost of a prison sentence can rocket, from an extra £40,000 to place a child with no specialist needs in care for 14 months, to £525,000 over 20 months for placing a child with complex needs in care. It’s estimated that moving just 1,000 women out of prison and on to a community sentence would save the Ministry of Justice at least £12m a year.
So looking for alternatives and supporting women within the community to get back on track, rather than favouring costly prison sentences, is the right approach - and one we know works.
Maria (name changed) was referred to Safer Wales after she was arrested for the first time for stealing from her workplace and, as a consequence, losing her job.
This was the first time she had ever been in trouble with the police, and the experience was obviously distressing.
"It was really frightening and claustrophobic. I was thinking about my partner, my family and my kids".
As a first time offender, Maria was offered the chance to work with us to tackle her drug addiction, which had driven her to offend in the first place. Despite being addicted to both cocaine and heroin for 30 years, Maria managed to overcome her addiction and find a new job.
"It was such a relief. It's the best thing that's happened to me, I've learnt a lot and I got lots of support."
Maria’s story is one example of the hundreds of women we’ve seen make positive changes in their lives when given the support they need.
By moving the emphasis away from custodial sentences and towards community rehabilitation, this new strategy means we can reduce the ultimately counterproductive practice of separating mothers from their children; placing vulnerable women with substance misuse and mental health issues on short term prison sentences.
With our devolved government’s commitment to increasing community safety and safeguarding future generations in Wales, we have a unique opportunity to ensure our communities are safer through progressive approaches to criminal justice.
We’re looking forward to working together with agencies and lawmakers alike to help shape a system that works for women in Wales and across the UK.