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Women’s prisons need reform, but they need funding too

The community prisons for women idea has been shelved but will the alternative really halt the cycle of reoffending if it’s lacking in funding?

With the government shelving plans for five new community prisons after widespread opposition, Justice Secretary David Gauke has outlined a new strategy today that he claims will “break the cycle” of reoffending rates amongst women.

Gauke is the fifth MP to hold the post in just three years. His new female offender strategy looks to put community services at the heart of the new system with five new residential women’s centres.

The MoJ’s claim that “putting women into prison can do more harm than good for society” is backed up by the figures, but a pitiful £5m in funding makes the revamped strategy seem more like a cost-cutting measure dressed up as reform (something which Gauke explicitly denied this morning on Radio 4’s Today).

Last summer, with the prison system was ‘in meltdown’, The Big Issue investigated why it was making women homeless.

A staggering 60 per cent of female offenders became homeless when they were released. In what is certainly no coincidence, the same percentage of reoffenders said they wouldn’t have felt forced to commit other crimes had they found a suitable home of their own on release.

The majority of women in custody (80 per cent) are there on short sentences (less than 12 months) for non-violent crimes, like shoplifting or petty theft. Gaps in provision mean the odds are stacked against them from the onset and release looms with little help on assimilating back to regular life.

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The five new residential centres proposed under the new strategy would help tackle some of those gaps, helping offenders with finding work and offering drug rehabilitation, and perhaps most crucially allowing them to remain close to home, within reach of families and allowing them to maintain a local connection (a deciding factor in obtaining housing benefits and support).

The strategy is welcome recognition of the futility of short prison sentences for women

“This ultimately benefits everyone – offenders, their families and the wider community as we see fewer victims and cut the cost of reoffending,” he said.

And while his call for a shift in attitudes to rehabilitation is welcomed by campaigners and charities, the £5m pledge over two years has led them to warn the provisions must be properly funded.

Kate Paradine, chief executive of the Women in Prison charity argued that for women’s centres to be at the heart of the new strategy as Gauke intends then the “deepening funding crisis” needs addressed.

“We now need to see evidence of urgent cross-government action to resource and implement this strategy,” she said.

Her sentiment was echoed by Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust who called for the work to “start immediately” as he raised concerns about the resources to deliver the change.

“The strategy is welcome recognition of the futility of short prison sentences for women whose offending is often driven by abusive relationships or unmet mental health needs,” he said.

While it “contains many positive promises of change”, Dawson highlights “it has not provided the resource to deliver that change, and no timetable to drive it.”

If properly put into action, the government’s good intentions can have life changing consequences to women and families across the country. As it stands however, it could be nothing more than the placation of calls for long overdue reform. Funding is ultimately crucial to its success.  

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