Our prisons are in crisis – that’s why we need women’s centres

prison, jail

Our prisons are in crisis – but we are sending record numbers of people to them.

In 2007 Baroness Jean Corston’s seminal review into women and the justice system was published following the suicides of six women in a 13 month period in HMP Styal. It found that women were discriminated against in a system designed “by men, for men”. It had 43 recommendations for the then-Labour government, a key pillar of which was the need for holistic “one-stop-shop” women’s centres as a place of early intervention, diversion from custody and post-release support (recommendations 29, 30, 32, 33). Currently 84 per cent of women in prison are serving time for a non-violent offence with 55 per cent serving a sentence of less than three months and 71 per cent serving a sentence that’s less than six.

The criminal justice landscape has changed significantly since the report was written – more violence and deaths, less staff and money; a stubbornly high prison population and reoffending rates. But the need for good, tailored, holistic provision for women has not changed. There were 12 self-inflicted deaths in women’s prisons in 2016, the highest number of women to die in custody in a year since the events that triggered the government to commission the Corston Report. Some of Corston’s recommendations have been fully implemented – women are no longer shackled whilst in labour – but several of the most significant recommendations haven’t.

In the case of women’s centres, rather than a proliferation of life-giving and transformative hubs that Ministry of Justice research shows are more effective at reducing reoffending than prison, many have had to close. Ministry of Justice cuts and a 70 per cent cut to local authorities’ budgets in some areas have had an impact on the ability to fund women’s services. Combined with the misnomered Transforming Rehabilitation probation reforms, this meant that promised funding was never delivered and many of the smaller women’s organisations went under as they waited for or refused funding.

In the midst of all this, I recently attended the launch of Southwark Women’s Space, run by Pecan with the London Community Rehabilitation Company, which opened its doors a few months ago. I used to work at Pecan as a mentor to women 18-25 being released from prison back to a London borough. At a team away day in 2014, we started to talk about our dream of running a women’s space to meet the relational and holistic needs of the women we knew, in a way that complemented the in-depth one to one mentoring we offered.

I loved my job at Pecan. I worked with courageous, resilient women who I walked alongside to help them navigate the welfare system, housing crises, physical and mental health services, addiction services – the many statutory services that pervaded their lives. We worked through trust, rapport and relationship to create safety. One thing we could not offer at that time was an accessible safe space – now this women’s space provides exactly that. Space to get the advice or practical help you need. Space to rest, space to think, space to reflect, space to connect with people that aren’t trying to get something from you or exploit you, space to ask questions, space to heal. Manager Katie Kelly said: “I’m delighted at the way a self-supporting community of women has grown up in a very short period of time. Women whose lives are extremely challenging, show kindness and compassion to each other and make a virtue of vulnerability and connection.”

Well-established women’s centres such as Anawim in Birmingham boast a re-offending rate of 1 per cent because their model enables deep, long-term work that gets to the interconnected root causes and drivers of offending. The cost benefit analysis of WomenMATTA project in the Labour-run Greater Manchester Combined Authority demonstrates that for long-term/large scale benefits the overall financial return on investment was £3.08 for every £1 invested. When this tracked across into the fiscal return on investment for the combined local authority and to the NHS, the return was £5.33 and £47.66 respectively.

When is our national government going to grasp the nettle and crack on with this effective, evidence-based, cheaper solution that will offer better outcomes for women and communities? In the meantime, there is a real opportunity here for Labour-run local authorities and devolved government to co-commission and co-produce services with NHS, VCS partners and those with lived experience that support their local women and end the cycle of crime for good. Eleven years since Corston: it’s time to step up and prioritise the needs of vulnerable woman in our communities.

For today, people of Southwark: rejoice. A day a week there is a space where your women can be heard, helped and empowered. In a criminal justice wasteland where violence, damage and numbers of victims increase my heart is bursting that in one corner of London my former colleagues have worked with women locally to offer a space that makes a real, lasting impact on the lives of their community. As one woman put it, Southwark Women’s Space is “a place to feel free and a home from home” – something for us all to celebrate.

Sara Hyde is vice-chair of the Fabian Women’s Network and a council candidate in Islington.

Southwark Women’s Space is open every Thursday 10am-4pm – self-referral by drop-in or agencies, please contact [email protected].

More from LabourList