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Compassionate release A strategy to support rather than imprison vulnerable women is on the table – but is it too little too late?

30th September 2009

Two-and-a-half years after Baroness Corston's blueprint for overhauling the women's prison system proposed that non-violent female offenders be sent to support centres instead of being locked up, the government has begun a series of meetings aimed at improving community-based help for these vulnerable women.

Justice minister Maria Eagle, last week met with magistrates, health workers, Crown Prosecution Office staff and prison officials in Birmingham at the first of 10 planned sessions on how to improve support for offenders who have a history of addiction and abuse and who are often caring for young children. Eagle said the events, dubbed Women in Focus, are the next step in ministers' efforts to implement Corston's recommendations.

While some campaigners are impatient about the pace of change, Corston, who is now chairing a new all-party parliamentary group aimed at pushing through her reform agenda, says she is "very encouraged" by the move. "The vision that I had was going to be at least five years if not 10," she says . "It's going in the right direction. I wouldn't want to say, 'Oh, yes, it's all implemented.' It couldn't have been – it's only two years."

Judges and magistrates need a clear understanding of the circumstances of offenders' lives, and an awareness of alternatives to prison, Corston argues. The Labour peer's report was commissioned by ministers after six inmates at Styal women's prison in Cheshire killed themselves in one year. It highlighted the system's failure to cope with a deeply troubled population of offenders, many of them dependent on drugs, trapped in destructive relationships, and haunted by histories of abuse and instability. The report concluded that most imprisoned women pose no danger to society and would be better served by "one-stop shop" support centres offering drug treatment, mental health services, education and other help.

Prison reform campaigners argue that sentences of as little as a month are too short to enable women to take advantage of drug treatment, but long enough to lose their homes, jobs and children – 18,000 children see their lives disrupted this way each year. But they were buoyed earlier this year when Eagle announced £15.6m over two years to fund support centres.

Although they believe the centres could cut the prison population by a few hundred, they say that it is not nearly enough. A key problem they identify is that many of the judges and magistrates who pronounce sentences know too little about the alternatives.

About 4,300 women are in prison at any one time – down by about 5% from last year. Some 30% of women in custody try to harm themselves, while as many as 80% have mental health problems. Half have been abused – many sexually – and a quarter were in foster care as children.

Seeking to press for full implementation of the Corston recommendations, 19 independent foundations, including the Diana Memorial Fund and the Bromley Trust, have joined forces – in an effort that they claim is unprecedented – to hire a full-time advocate to press for Corston's agenda.

Antonia Bance, a former Oxfam campaigner who started in the advocate's post this month, says the new funds demonstrate real commitment. However, she warns: "A two-year pot of money isn't going to achieve systemic change."

Looming elections cast further uncertainty on the prospects for a new approach, although the Conservatives have been broadly supportive of Corston's recommendations.

Also pushing for an overhaul of the system is the Howard League for Penal Reform, whose Lost Daughters campaign focuses on prison suicides. One of its clients, who was abused as a child, gouged herself with stones and cut her throat with a pair of scissors, then tried to kill herself by swallowing glass. Prison officers isolated and restrained her.

Such stories are common. "People say, 'I'm going to kill myself tonight because I can't stand it anymore,'" says Kim Davis, who volunteered as a peer support "listener" while jailed for conspiracy to import drugs. Released in 2007 after seven years in prison, she now works for the Griffins Society, which helps women offenders.

"They can't stand being in the prison and being away from their family and friends, and they can't stand what they're going out to," Davis explains.

Three women prisoners have committed suicide this year, among them 36-year-old Alison Colk, who hanged herself on her first night in Styal prison, where she was to serve 28 days for theft.

Eagle says ministers are committed to implementing Corston's recommendations and have made significant progress already but admits there is still much to be done. "[The] government and experts from across the country will work together to find the right answers for non-violent women offenders that work locally and will command the confidence of sentencers and of communities," she says.

Corston adds that officials deserve real credit for what they have done so far."I understand how difficult it is structurally to turn around closed institutions," she says. "It's so important to take people with you."
Source: The Guardian (2009)