Letters in The Times

Published letters in The Times from Women in Prison CEO Kate Paradine, Inquest Director Deborah Coles, Prison Reform Trust Director Peter Dawson, & Howard Thomas on why we need to reduce the women’s prison population and how the answer lies in investing in community support services like our women’s centre WomenMATTA in Manchester, not prisons.

 

Sir, Being a woman is no “forcefield against punishment” in today’s criminal justice system (“Women must face the same justice as men”, 15th Jan and Letters, 17th Jan).  Replace “young and well to do” with those from a poor or black and minority ethnic (BAME) background and sentencing outcomes differ for both men and women. Women’s patterns of offending are different to men’s. 84% of women’s prison sentences are for non violent offences, mainly theft (such as shop lifting), including non payment of council tax and TV licence.  Women are more likely than men to be in prison for a first offence. Many female prisoners have experienced domestic abuse, sexual violence or abuse as a child and one third grew up in care.  As with men, root causes of women’s offending are often mental ill health, addiction and poverty. Women are frequently primary carers so when a mother goes to prison in 9 out of 10 cases her children will go into care or live with relatives. As well as high levels of self harm, in the last two years, fourteen women have taken their own lives in prison.   The answer to our criminal justice crisis is not harsher sentences, it’s tackling root causes of offending and investing in community alternatives to custody - for women and men.

Kate Paradine, CEO, Women in Prison
Deborah Coles, Director, Inquest

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Sir, The view of Claire Foggs “that there are good arguments for not banging up women for trivial offences” hardly matches up with the criminal justice figures for 2016. Comparing that year with the previous year, the drop in custody figures is a mere ten women (7,323 down to 7,313), by far the majority for sentences of less than six months; violent offences comprise a tiny fraction of the total. The figures also show considerable variation at a local level. In the Greater Manchester area, the number of women sentenced to immediate custody by the courts fell by 36 per cent over the past five years, while in other areas the number of women sentenced to immediate custody has increased by as much as 50 per cent over the same period. Although all courts are bound by sentencing guidelines, two issues stand out: namely, what constitutes a sentence of custody for women is massively geographically variable, and that the services aimed at keeping women out of custody in Manchester are effective and need replicating acorss the majority of other courts in England and Wales.

Howard Thomas
Chief probation officer North Wales 1985-96

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Sir, Your leader (“Just in Time”, Jan 18) points the way to the solution to our national prison catastrophe. Although there remain many exceptions, for the majority of people in prison the court will have faced little option but to impose a custodial sentence. But, led by Parliament, sentence lengths have risen exponentially, and reversing that trend is essential to restore order and a sense of purpose. However I suspect that the first item in David Gauke’s in-tray will be the financial crisis that his department faces. In the coming financial year he must make cuts of $400 million - the equivalent of closung 20 large prisons. The year after, he must find a further £200 million. Without a drastic reduction in our use of custody, the crisis inside our prisons will deepen rather than abate. He should make a start by stopping the recall of prisoners on licence on administrative grounds, and signalling an end to the use of prison for non-violent crime in a long overdue new strategy for women who offend (letter, Jan 18),

Peter Dawson, Director, Prison Reform Trust