On Monday, David Cameron has made a speech about the need for comprehensive prison reform, including a particular mention of the detention of pregnant women and mothers with young babies. Speaking at the Policy Exchange think tank in Westminster, he said:
A sad but true fact is that last year there were 100 babies in our country living in a prison. Yes, actually inside the prison. In the prison’s mother-and-baby unit, to be precise. When we know the importance of the early years for child development, how can we possibly justify having babies behind bars?
Under the new reforms, the government would consider alternative forms of dealing with offenders, including satellite-tagging technology and “problem-solving courts” which would order offenders into treatment programmes for issues such as drug addiction.
Cameron was right to raise the issue of the catastrophic state of the prison system (he’s the first prime minister for 20 years to do so in a speech solely focusing on prisons), and right to recommend reform. The current system is not working, as the statistics show: 46% of all prisoners and 60% of those with short sentences reoffend within a year. The situation is equally dire for prisoners’ wellbeing: there are, on average, 600 incidents of self-harm in prisons every week. But the problem demands a more comprehensive solution than Cameron suggests, particularly with regard to women.
More than 9,000 women were received into prison last year, the majority for non-violent offences. An estimated 17,240 children, including many under five years old, are separated from their mothers by imprisonment. Only 5% of children with a mother in prison are able to stay in the family home, and only 9% are cared for by their fathers. In 2011-2012, according to the Prison Reform Trust, just 8.7% of women were able to find employment on release, compared with 27.3% of men.
According to the London-based charity Women in Prison, 46% of women in prison report having suffered domestic violence, and 53% report having experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse during childhood (compared with 27% of men). Despite making up only 5% of the prison population, women in prison account for 28% of the self-harm incidents. Women in custody are five times more likely to have a mental-health concern than women in the general population and 46% say they have attempted suicide at some time in their life. Many vulnerable women end up in prison because they have been coerced into committing crimes by male partners or family members; in 2013, 48% of women said they committed their crime in order to support the drug habit of someone else.
The problem doesn’t end when women enter prison – former inmates have described abuse and a recent report by national charity the Howard League for Penal Reform found that female prisoners had been coerced into sex and pressured into abusive relationships with staff.
It is already clear that sustainable, properly funded alternatives to custody are a vital part of making any prison-reform plan work. This is especially true for prisoners with complex needs, including those who have experienced domestic or sexual abuse, and single mothers. But this is where Cameron’s passionate support of reform could fall short in the light of funding cuts to specialist services for supporting female offenders and cuts to domestic and sexual violence services.
There is evidence that the financial cost of such services would be negligible. According to the Prison Reform Trust, if alternatives to prison were to achieve an additional reduction of just 6% in reoffending by women, the state would recoup the investment required in just one year.
If we want to resolve the gargantuan problem of the failing prison service, a wider view needs to be taken and it must include real, well-funded action on violence against women; not only responsive measures, but preventative ones, too. It is also vital to take into account the experiences of all women. The charity Women for Refugee Women has been campaigning against the detention of refugee women, including those who are pregnant, for some time.
Natasha Walter, director of the charity, says:
Detaining pregnant women is ineffective: in 2014, 99 pregnant women were held in Yarl’s Wood detention centre – despite government policy that these women should only be detained in exceptional circumstances – but only nine of these women were actually removed from the UK. 90% were released to continue with their cases in the community, so their detention served no purpose at all.
In January 2016, a review of the welfare of vulnerable detainees, commissioned by the Home Office and undertaken by the former prisons and probation ombudsman Stephen Shaw, recommended that there should be an absolute ban on the use of immigration detention for pregnant women.
Urgent attention is also due to the plight of transgender women serving sentences in UK prisons, an issue not raised in Cameron’s speech; particularly after the tragic deaths of Joanne Latham and Vicky Thompson within a single month in 2015. A review of the care and management of transgender offenders is currently underway.
These issues affect some of the most voiceless members of our society. Cameron should be commended for broaching the subject of prison reform. But for female prisoners in particular, there is a lot more that needs to be said.