Scandal of the Ministry of Justice’s £200 million plan to imprison more women while providing a tenth of the cash to keep them out of jail

Foston Hall women’s prison. Pic credit: BBC

As the UK faces public spending cuts the Ministry of Justice is embarking on a £200 million plan to expand the women prison population by building 500 new places for women.

The scheme has been condemned by charities from the Prison Reform Trust, the Howard League for Penal Reform to Women in Prison and was subject to a highly critical report from MPs on the Commons Justice Committee.

This weekend a report from Women in Prison provided a cost funded case to turn this spending plan on its head by funding women’s centres instead to keep women out of jail and save the NHS, local authorities and the police a shed load of public money in picking up the pieces after prison life.

If you don’t believe this you should read last year’s Chief Inspector of Prisons report on Foston Hall, near Uttoxeter, Derbyshire, the worst women’s prison in the country. housing around 272 women prisoners.

1750 cases of self harm in one year at Foston Hall prison

An unannounced visit found that in one year there were 1750 cases of self harm by the women inmates and a staggering 1000 calls to the Samaritans each month. Two women had killed themselves there since 2019. Other statistics revealed that 20 per cent of the women were released into the community with nowhere to live – adding to the homelessness problem. The prison couldn’t even get people to work there – it had a supposed full staff complement of 110 but only 62 were deployable at any one time. As a result there was a high level of violence and lot of women were segregated.

The report said: “The prison had no strategy to reduce self-harm or improve the care for those in crisis. Recommendations made by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman following their investigation into deaths in custody had still to be addressed and the relatively few women who accounted for most of the
incidents did not have meaningful care plans. The response to women in crisis was too reactive, uncaring and often punitive.”

Contrast this with a plan put forward by the new Women in Prison report. It follows one of the last acts of the Johnson government to allocate £24m – compared to £200m for new prison places – to develop women’s centres as an alternative to prison.

Women in Prison point out that just one centre “receiving £1m in a given year can support over 650 women and generate £2.75m in public sector savings, while providing a lifeline for vital services and significantly improving wellbeing for women and their children. The savings would go to local authorities (47%), the Ministry of Justice (17%), the NHS (15%), the Police (10%), the Department for Work and Pensions (9%) and HM Revenue and Customs (2%).”

Instead nearly half of Women’s Centres surveyed said they are concerned about their survival because the £24m is being parcelled out in short term funding spread across the country. Once the money runs out centres face closure.

Anawin Women’s Centre pic credit: Anawin

Joy Doal, Chief Executive of Anawim Women’s Centre in Birmingham said: “We are struggling. The needs of the women we work with are becoming more complex. We are witnessing the fallout from  Covid-19 – which is driving mental health problems – and an alarming number of women driven into poverty due to rising bills. On top of that our own costs are skyrocketing due to inflation and the rise in living costs. Now more than ever, we need sustainable, long-term funding to ensure we can continue meeting the ever growing needs of the women we work with.”

To me this seems just one more example of the lack of joined up thinking in Whitehall. The Women in Prison charity have done a great job not only in highlighting what is going wrong but in providing a fully costed solution that ought to be sent to the Treasury post haste. One example of a woman ending up in prison because they have mental health problems was covered on my blog earlier this year. See it here.

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