“I’ve tried to be strong and confident but sometimes as a woman, it really hurts when you are trying to move forward. There are so many barriers to overcome to achieve basic human rights such as a safe place to live in which to rebuild your life. Even months later, the struggle continues and I’m still in temporary accommodation and battling ill-health. It’s no wonder women with no-one to turn to go back.”
These words from Althea Smith, published in the Huffington Post, describe her plight upon leaving prison. Her obstacles aren’t unusual – they are those of nearly every woman finishing a short prison sentence. A woman that has just been stripped of her dignity. Separated from her children. Left to simmer in her trauma. She is placed back into her community and expected to have recovered from the lack that led her to prison in the first place.
In May 2019, there were nearly 3,500 women in the prisons throughout the UK. That number, though, doesn’t reflect the huge and varied historical factors that contribute to the offending behaviour.
The women that find that themselves in prison following a criminal offence are often victims of poverty, abuse, mental health issues and substance misuse – they are among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable people in our society. More than half of women in prison have survived emotional, physical or sexual abuse in childhood. Seventy percent are survivors of domestic abuse. Eighty percent of the time, her crime is a non-violent offence, such as shoplifting or drug use. Yet instead of understanding and treating the reason for her crime, she is punished with a short sentence prison stay to attempt to fix her behaviour and teach her a lesson.
Natalie, a young Black mum, was convicted following a fight with her abusive ex-partner. She had spent years enduring the abuse of her partner, and finally began to lash out against him. After the neighbours rang the police following an incident, the police didn’t ask her about domestic abuse and she didn’t voluntarily disclose the history of abuse to her lawyer for fear of what would happen to her daughter if she was seen to not be protecting her. Despite this being her first offence, she was given a short, custodial sentence. Were it not for the family support she received following her release, she would have lost her home and her daughter may have gone into the care of Social Services.
This system of punishment completely disregards the reason she initially offended, explains Olivia Dehnavi of Working Chance. “Women who receive a prison sentence are often those experiencing the most crisis. Prison ends up being the ultimate solution that the criminal justice system presents, but obviously it’s not a solution at all, because it doesn’t solve any of the problems that lead women there.”
The unmet needs of a woman – be it safety, shelter, finances, community, therapy, drug treatment, employment – will not be met effectively in prison, campaigners such as Dehnavi argue. If her needs aren’t met, she will continue to resort to dangerous routes to ensure she gets what she, and her family, require for survival. She may use alcohol to numb domestic abuse. Drugs to drown out trauma. Theft to put dinner on the table.
Short prison sentences not only ignore these needs but worsen her condition upon leaving, setting her up for failure. “Short custodial sentences for women lead to immense damage, including loss of home and losing contact with children,” says Louise Ridley, senior lecturer in criminology at Northumbria University. Six out of ten women are leaving prison with no home to return to, and children that have had experienced the loss of separation from their main care giver. Additionally, she is left with a criminal record, putting her at a disadvantage when it comes to applying for jobs.
Dr. Victoria Anderson, who has worked with women in prisons, believes short prison sentences often do more harm than good. “Women who were in for petty crimes were in and out. They might be in prison for six weeks, and then back. Or for some, they’d be back within the same day. They never had an opportunity to do anything useful while in prison and never had an opportunity to turn their lives around outside. It was just a constant mess.”
Pushing for progress
To address the multi-faceted needs of women vulnerable to criminal offences and keep them from the endless cycle of prison stays, advocates from prison reform groups and Women’s Centres are calling for increased funding for Women’s Centres. Scattered throughout 40 locations in England and Wales, Women’s Centres are women-only spaces that provide information, advice, employment training, and education within their communities. They are meant to be ‘one-stop-shops’ where women can access a variety of services under one roof.
Sarah Frost, of DMSS Research and co-writer of Why Women’s Centres Work: An Evidence Briefing, describes Women’s Centres as “safe, welcoming, friendly, and inviting spaces.” Upon entering a drop-in centre, a woman keen to access support would ideally be greeted by a friendly face, offered a cup of tea, and immediately made to feel comfortable and safe.
Frost explains that staff at the centres take a holistic approach and “step back to see the woman as a whole person with a range of individual experiences and needs”. They intentionally focus on strengthening the relationship and gathering trust with a woman before moving forward with any specific needs or goals. Once that relationship is established, staff work with women and tailor services according her specific and often complex needs – be it homelessness, sexual exploitation, mental health problems, domestic violence, addiction or criminal justice system contact. Instead of having to access services from fragmented locations, with several workers that have no depth of relationship with the woman, she can receive support on a range of issues in one unified, safe place.
As a woman’s practical, physical and psychological needs are met in a trauma-informed, holistic setting, Frost found evidence that her risk of offending or re-offending could be significantly minimised. If a woman has what she needs for success, she is less likely to resort to criminal offences.
The quest for funding
Women’s Centres are vital, but they aren’t infallible. Without proper funding, they will be staffed inappropriately with workers who aren’t qualified to deal with the severely disadvantaged women who enter through their doors. There is also concern around placing women serving custodial sentences in Women’s Centres since their place of punishment becomes the same premises as their place of support. For both of these concerns to be addressed, charities and advocates are calling for increased, sustainable funding for Women’s Centres, using data to show that investing in vulnerable women saves money in the long-term on health, housing, welfare, children’s services and criminal justice spend.
“It’s been widely acknowledged that community support is best placed to address the root causes of why women are sent to prison in the first place, helping with issues ranging from mental health, debt, domestic abuse, substance misuse, homelessness and parenting,” explains Dr. Kate Paradine, chief executive of Women in Prison. “But now Women’s Centres across the country lack the certainty that they can keep their doors open and support the women most exposed to the consequences of the pandemic. When the socio-economic effects of coronavirus bite, it is community services like Women’s Centres that help weather the storm.”
The lives of vulnerable women with disadvantaged backgrounds depend on these centres as a means of avoiding prison and the endless cycle of re-offending which follows it. Paradine and many others fighting for the rights of women agree: “We urge the Government to act quickly in order to safeguard the future of these vital community services across the country by offering a new deal for funding their core services, and deliver their commitment to radically reduce the number of women in prison.”