MPs criticise slow progress in improving support for women in prison

The House of Commons Justice Committee of MPs has warned that limited progress has been made in developing alternatives to custodial sentences for women amid concerns that the female prison population may rise by a third in the next three years.

In a report published this week, the Committee found that more needed to be done to address the addiction, mental health and trauma issues facing women who enter the prison system.

The report called on the Government to ensure that strategies developed to combat problems in the system were adequately funded, rolled out efficiently and monitored for performance to create meaningful change.

The report also called for a renewed focus on the specific challenges facing women who enter the prison system. This includes the impact it has on women who are primary carers and what more can be done to ensure that vital family relationships are maintained.

Chair of the Justice Committee Sir Bob Neill: ‘It is welcome that the Government has understood that there are specific challenges around sending women to prison that need to be addressed, but it is disappointing that there is yet to be significant tangible change.

‘The 2018 Female Offender Strategy marked an important step in recognising the needs of women in the criminal justice system, but more needs to be done to understand whether it is targeting the right areas and having a meaningful impact. Women entering the prison system often have challenging needs and they must be supported from the day they arrive to the day they leave and beyond.’

A key objective of the Government’s Female Offender strategy is to have fewer women in prison. Overall numbers have fallen, from 3,958 in February 2017 to 3,219 in July 2022, but the Ministry of Justice now predicts it will increase by a third over the next three years.

The committee said that the Government should set out what funding it plans to put in place to support the development of women-specific pathways to support alternatives to prison sentences, together with a timeframe for when it expects these services to be in operation.

Speaking on behalf of the Safe Homes for Women Leaving Prison initiative, Dr Jenny Earle, who gave oral evidence to the Justice Committee, said: ‘We welcome this report but it is the latest in a long line of authoritative reports criticising government for paying lip service to the particular needs and vulnerabilities of women in prison while failing to invest in the support services that would enable them to turn their lives around. Without safe, suitable accommodation women are still being set up to fail themselves and their children. 

‘Women are still being released homeless, at risk of sexual exploitation and abuse and more likely to be recalled to prison. In its most recent report on HMP&YOI Bronzefield, HM Inspectorate of Prisons found that 65% of sentenced women did not have a safe or suitable home to go to on release.

‘The Committee found after hearing from the Ministry of Justice that it’s not at all clear how many women are being assisted by the new temporary accommodation service for released prisoners or what housing support is being provided in women’s prisons and through the gate. This Justice Committee report confirms that the government’s delivery of its own objectives has been poor, slow, opaque and under-resourced.’

Photo by Matthew Ansley


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