Prison Break: Is it time to rethink why, how and where women are incarcerated?

Prisons are failing female offenders. Fact. And as the notorious women’s prison HMP Holloway closes this summer, campaigners are calling for a radical shake-up in the criminal justice system. So what are the options?

‘I don’t mind talking about my time locked up if it helps other people,’ says Nadia*, 22, who recently spent two and a half years in Bronzefield prison, Surrey, for drug-trafficking offences. ‘But I do think women who’ve been in prison are discriminated against more than men once we’re released – and I do think we have less support while we’re serving our sentences, too. When a man is an ex-offender, he’s seen as rugged and tough. Women are seen as unstable and screwed up.’

Currently employed by a charity, Nadia is working hard to get her life back on track, but she knows she’s an anomaly. She managed to find paid work ahead of her release, and her family loaned her the deposit for a rented flat. But at the time of going to press, there were 3,838 women in prison in England and Wales – that’s nearly twice as many as there were in 1995. And despite the fact that 81 per cent are serving time for non-violent crimes, such as shoplifting or drug-related misdemeanours (which would otherwise be treated with therapy and support), their futures look bleak.

No surprise then, that women’s rights campaigners are arguing that the imminent closure of the UK’s largest all-female prison, HMP Holloway, shouldn’t simply result in the inmates being sent to prisons further afield, but that smaller custodial units and women’s centres should replace prison for the majority of female offenders instead. After all, research indicates that those landed with community orders are much less likely to re-offend than those given custodial sentences. Not to mention the fact that more than a quarter of all self-harm incidents in UK prisons involve women – even though they only make up 5 per cent of the total prison population.

‘Courts shouldn’t send so many women to prison while they’re awaiting trial,’ explains Jenny Earle, programme director of the Prison Reform Trust, which has recently been awarded £1.2 million from the Big Lottery Fund to drive down the numbers of imprisoned women. ‘Less than half of the women on remand get custodial sentences. Most of those are imprisoned for very short periods – just long enough to compound the problems that contributed to their offending in the first place.’

She’s not wrong. The Chief Inspector of Prisons has reported that 30 per cent of the women surveyed were forced out of their accommodation and had their possessions confiscated, too. Nadia isn’t surprised. ‘I met many women in prison who didn’t need to be there,’ she tells me. ‘Some of them were only there for a short time – but because of that, they lost their homes. They lost everything.’

Family is another factor. Legally, women can be imprisoned up to 100 miles away from home, leaving many inmates fearful of what will happen when Holloway closes its doors. It’s a fear that’s been exacerbated following reports that its neighbour, Bronzefield, is full. Now rumours of being sent ‘up north’ are spreading, which would make visits from children and relatives even harder.

‘The courts should be sending the women to supported housing projects or intimate custodial units,’ says Mandy Ogubnokun, 56, an ex-offender, who works on staff at Holloway prison. ‘Many of these women have serious underlying stuff going on. They need to be in a smaller environment where they will not be overlooked for trauma therapy or drugs counselling.’

The maths isn’t hard to work out: more one-to-one attention, plus easy access to womens’ support networks equals increased opportunities for rehabilitation and an easier reintegration upon release. Activists are now campaigning for some of the proceeds of the Holloway land sale to be reinvested into women’s services. ‘We are hoping that the Visitors’ Centre at the prison could be transformed into a women’s centre,’ says Earle. But she acknowledges change is needed. ‘The current system doesn’t work,’ explains Ogubnokun. ‘It’s too easy to get lost in it.’

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