Dr Rachel Bennett, from the Department of History at the University of Warwick, comments on the news that Justice Secretary David Gauke will cut funding to five women's community prisons in England and Wales and will instead channel cash into five residential centres, which are to be trialled.
Dr Bennett is a Research Fellow working as part of the Wellcome Trust funded project, Prisoners, Medical Care and Entitlement to Health in England and Ireland, 1850-2000.
“Today the Justice Secretary has announced a ‘step change’ in our country’s approach to rehabilitating women offenders. He plans to establish five new residential centres to replace prison sentences where women will receive more help and support to overcome the issues that have led them to commit crime. However, the issue of imprisoning women for short terms, often less than 12 months, for predominantly non-violent crimes is not a new question facing the criminal justice system.
“Historically the prison system has been created by men for men. The locking up of women, and the social, familial and medical ramifications of this, have often been largely ignored. Women have consistently accounted for only a small proportion of the prison population – with the current figure standing at around five per cent. In the overwhelming majority of cases they are not there for a violent crime nor are they deemed to be a danger to the public. They are often battling addiction, mental ill health, and have themselves been victims of physical, sexual and emotional abuse. Many of them are mothers. So the question has been repeatedly asked, and has come to the fore again today: Is prison the appropriate place to rehabilitate these women?
“The Justice Secretary’s statements today highlight a long-standing issue that the criminal justice system has failed to address, namely the separation of mothers and children. When a mother goes to prison this can lead to the breaking up of families and severe disruption to the lives of her children.
“We have to ask ourselves, and our government, if this is a pattern we want to continue, especially when we consider that most of these women are serving short sentences and are in prison for minor offences?
“An event exploring a century of maternal experiences of incarceration at the University of Warwick asked this very question this week. Charities and individuals who have delivered vital services to mothers in prison, including much-needed advice and support for pregnant and perinatal women, spoke about how our criminal justice system could better support these women in the community.
“The plans laid out today for new residential centres are a good start and would certainly be the ‘step change’ so long needed in our treatment of women offenders.”
27 June 2018
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