At a panel on women in prison chaired by Jean Lambert MEP, we learnt that only five per cent of 18,000 children whose mothers are jailed every year end up staying in their own homes, their lives hugely disrupted.
We heard that in the last decade the women’s prison population has gone up by 33%, and in total it has more than doubled since 1995.
There was surprise at the fact that more women were sent to prison in 2007 for shoplifting offences than any other crime, accounting in total for 26% of all women sentenced to immediate custody.
And there was horror at the information that women represent overall 5% of the prison population, but in 2008 they were responsible for more than half of the reported cases of self-harm – 12,938 cases in the female prisoners.
Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, explained the rising numbers of women in prison by the fact that sentences have become longer, and more women are going in on remand even though they won’t subsequently be jailed. Tragically many were placed in prison for ‘assessment’ – “she’s probably ill so we need to jail her for a report.”
The autumn Green Party conference strongly backed policy on women in prisons in line with the Corston Report, which says women should only be locked up when absolutely necessary, and that their special needs and vulnerabilities should be considered in community service. It acknowledged that since they are only a tiny proportion of the total prison population, they are in a system that simply isn’t designed to meet their needs, which needs to be radically changed.
The conference motion was in addition to existing Green Party policy which already calls for a substantial reduction in the use of prison as a punishment for all offenders.
The other three main parties have paid lip service to the Corston Report (which was also enthusiastically welcomed by the major NGOs in the field), but have failed to take opportunities to implement it. Lyon identified a “handwringing element” to the discussion of prison reform: “we don’t want to keep going over the problems. Let’s move on to solutions.”
She added that it doesn’t excuse the fact that they have hurt or harmed someone else, but helps to understand why many women do offend: half of women prisoners have been victims of domestic violence, a third of sexual abuse. “I do feel that at the worst we are punishing women for the experience they are having for being victims.”
Joy Doal, from the Birmingham Anawin Project, which assists women in and just out of prison, provided accounts of how the system still failed many, despite attempts to reduce the number of short sentences, “We go into Eastwood Park Prison and Drake Hall. One of the things that really hits me is the short sentences that are so damaging for women. In Eastwood Park the average stay (and some women are doing 12/15 years) is 23 days. In the month of April there were 43 women doing 8 days or less… where is the sense in that? What can that possibly solve?
“And usually, even after a very short sentence, it takes six weeks for benefits for kick in; if you have no money you are probably going to nick things.”
She added that prison was a very different experience for women: their lives usually totally fall apart while they are in prison. “If you go to a men’s prison on visiting day you see a line of buggies, women who are keeping the house and children going, paying the bills. You go to a women’s prison there is almost no one there: the prisoner’s life isn’t sustained.”
Rebecca, a user of Anawin Project, told us: “They stopped housing benefit when I came out of prison, even though they’d paid when I was in.”
The policy motion came out of discussion at Green Party Women and WomenbyName events. At conference, the treatment of children in care was identified as the next issue for policy discussion.