Empty Cells or Empty Words?

Gael ScottGael Scott, Policy Officer at the Centre for Mental Health

It has now been five years since Baroness Corston published her review of women in prison in which she called for a “radical change in the way we treat women throughout the whole of the criminal justice system”. Earlier this week the Criminal Justice Alliance published a report, written by Professor Carol Hedderman, which highlights that, despite some progress, we have not yet made the changes necessary to reduce the number of vulnerable women sent to prison.

Empty Cells or Empty Words? shows that the number of women received into custody under sentence has been increasing, reflecting the rise in the proportion of women in prison who are there on a short prison sentence (six months or less). Short prison sentences can be highly damaging; often they are just long enough for someone to lose their home, job and family and for their health and mental health to deteriorate but are rarely long enough to engage in any form of rehabilitation. Reoffending rates for short sentences are particularly high: 60% of people given short prison sentences are re-convicted within a year of release and 75% within two years.

As the report highlights, women in prison are five times more likely than women in the general population to suffer from mental health problems and, although they only make up 5% of the prison population, they account for nearly half of all incidents of self-harm. Sending them to prison also has a particularly detrimental impact for their children: only 5% of the estimated 18,000 children whose mothers go into prison each year are able to stay in their own home whilst their mother is in prison. These children are also more likely to be unemployed in the future, become involved in drugs or offending behaviour.

Sending more and more women to prison on short sentences  is not just damaging for the women and families affected, it is damaging for society as a whole. The recommendations in this report offer a radical solution to tackle this problem including withdrawing the power of magistrates to impose custodial sentences and to introduce sentencing guidelines to avoid sending women to prison for first time non-violent offences.  Used appropriately, effective diversion and liaison services can also reduce the number of women being imprisoned (especially on remand).

We need to reduce the number of vulnerable women in custody, reduce reoffending and make sure that women in the criminal justice system receive the support and care that they need to rebuild their lives.