Updated: Wednesday, 3rd June 2020 @ 3:06pm

The real issue locked in the women’s prison system

The real issue locked in the women’s prison system

| By Imogen Clyde-Smith

“Drug addiction impacts on your mental health, mental health can impact on housing and it’s like a ricochet effect, a bullet bouncing off each disadvantage. You can’t stop it in its tracks.

“I got eight weeks and I came out again with no housing, no benefits, no methadone course, no doctor, no nothing, and I was straight out on the streets again.”

Amanda’s story as told on Unchained, a Prison Radio Association production for BBC Radio 4. Her experiences are not unique.

Two Government reports – the Corston Report in 2007 and the Ministry of Justice Female Offender Strategy in 2018 – have revealed that short-term custodial sentences do not work for women.

73% of women sentenced to less than a year reoffend. Despite this the number of short sentences have risen according to the charity Women in Prison.

Mancunian Matters spoke to three women on the issues surrounding female sentencing.

Dr Shona Minson from the Centre for Criminology at the University of Oxford has done extensive research on the impact of maternal imprisonment which has informed Government policy. She spoke to MM about the reality of life after prison for female convicts. 

“When you go into prison your housing benefit stops immediately if your sentence is more than 13 weeks.

“You lose your tenancy, if you’re a mother you've already lost your children. Your home will be emptied without you there, most women don’t have people to support them and so they lose all their belongings, they’re just put in a skip.

“When women come out of prison, they’re called intentionally homeless. To get accommodation that would allow them to have their kids back is an uphill struggle. With a conviction trying to get any job is a real problem.

“They’ll have lost their job in most cases, they’ll have lost their housing, they come out with 46 quid (£46). What are their options?”

It’s hoped the government will look into its penal policy as the coronavirus pandemic continues to expose its pitfalls.

“There was a debate in The House of Lords on prisons and Covid, and 14 out of 15 peers who spoke on the issue were calling for immediate action to prevent more deaths and for a long hard look at the situation,” added Dr Minson.

“But the government is politically motivated, and prisons are not something the public are interested in.”

‘HARROWING’ CASE STUDIES

Farah Damji started The View, a magazine written by women for women in the criminal justice system, whilst she was serving a sentence at Downview prison. She too hopes for government action.

“The View has started a letter [to the Government] calling for action and there’s a woman at Downview who we’ve asked the Governor to release.

“I think the government is going to be shamed into having to do something fairly drastic because we’ve heard of the death of seven women and they’re not being reported.

“In The View you will see really harrowing case studies. No one has ever brought the voices of these women to the forefront to allow them to say actually this is what is happening to me, it’s happening right now in England.

“We’re locking women in prison who actually don’t need to be in prison. Why is it that the £600 million a year spent on justice health contracts can’t be diverted to support these women in the community with the services they need? That’s the core issue.”

Mim Skinner is the author of the book Jail Birds: Lessons from a Women's Prison which draws on her experience as an art teacher and chaplaincy assistant at a women’s prison. She believes a change in narrative is key to reform.

“I ended up writing the book because for a long time I was seeing these really good policy reports and I thought ‘Brilliant, it’s going in the right direction.’

“Then it transpired it’s not, because if this stuff doesn’t enjoy popular support it doesn’t matter how many papers come out about imprisonment – if people aren’t going to put it into action. I’m a big advocate for changing public perception, it’s the biggest thing that’s stopping change happening.”

Skinner now runs a women’s housing project and support group. One of the prisoners she met during her time at the prison, known as Catherine in Jail Birds, now lives in one of the project’s houses.

Catherine has not committed a crime since her release, and offers a glimpse of what can happen when these women are given a chance. 

Image courtesy of needpix.com with thanks.