Tom Halpin, Sacro - Women's Penal Policy

Women offenders: ‘From where I stand…’

This blog is part of a series considering developments two years on from the publication of the report by the Commission on Women Offenders. Tom Halpin, Chief Executive, SACRO and Chair of the Shine partnership, offers his perspective:

The Commission on Women Offenders Report was not a ‘wake up’ call, it was a long needed ‘holding to account’ for us all.

Today, the report card for work done to meet the Commission’s recommendations reads ‘making good progress, but still needs to focus on outcomes’.

This last year has definitely been about delivering the services that women need. Public Social Partnerships are an emerging model for designing and delivering these services. Shine Women’s Mentoring Service is now providing personal mentors to support women on a one-to-one basis with the issues many face in the community. After a period in custody, it is a difficult time for anyone and often it is not easy to access services.

For women, these issues are emotionally significant; frequently further damaging already low self-esteem. The Shine mentor will talk these things through with a woman in prison and then remain with her on release to give support both practically and emotionally for a minimum of six months. This support is designed to rebuild self-esteem and make the change needed on a personal journey to a life without offending. This is the outcome we all must support through the services we provide. It is too early to write the final report card, but progress is good.

Mentoring support is now firmly established across all Scotland’s communities and available for women leaving prison. We are also making progress supporting women on remand. This is an anomaly where the disproportionately high numbers compared to men on remand needs to be scrutinised further.

Along with other established mentoring initiatives, Shine is working with the women’s justice centres and linked services to ensure the woman’s journey is supported and joined up.

Individual testimonies from women who engage with Shine are overwhelmingly positive and provide confidence that Angiolini’s recommendation for mentoring support is the right response. Testimonies like that of Miss L, who stated that having a mentor to talk to has helped her think about the consequences of her actions and given her confidence in her ability to adhere to her plans to stop offending. She was delighted to tell her mentor that when a drug dealer had visited her home and offered her drugs, Miss L refused the offer and told him to leave and never come back.

Importantly, this is also about those dedicated workers and volunteers who support women on their journey to desistance from offending. A crucial element of the response to the Commission has been how the workforce is developing. Collaboration between public, private and third sector staff and volunteers is frankly inspirational. Building a common understanding of what mentoring support is, establishing practice standards to safeguard all and sharing learning for the benefit of women.

Scotland has responded to the Commission and is holding itself to account. But the final report grade will depend on the outcomes we achieve. There are still too many women in prison, particularly on remand.

Too many women still find themselves in the margins having difficulty accessing services like housing and health, particularly in relation to mental health.

So long as we continue to stay alert, our next report should read ‘very good and outcomes are being achieved’.



What's right for women offenders?

This time two years ago there was great optimism upon the publication of The Commission on Women's Offending. The Report highlighted that those women who end up in prison are amongst the most vulnerable members of our society. Their pasts are often marred with abuse and trauma, their presents are characterised by addiction, poverty and isolation. Further, patterns of female criminality are generally defined by low level offences and by in large they present little risk to the public. The demanding task faced by Government in wake of the report was how to transform women's penal policy to reflect these issues, how to make it effective and fair.

Two years on from the publication of the Report it is clear that some progress has been made in improving the lot of women offenders. However, there is widespread concern about the numbers of women still passing through our criminal justice system. Whilst there has been a drop in numbers, the number of women in prison continues to hover around the 400 mark. And again, whilst the proposed closure of Cornton Vale was universally welcomed, there is dismay at the plans to build a 350-bed prison in Inverclyde. It is clear that this is far from being the “smaller, specialist prison” recommended by the report.

This week, to mark this anniversary, Howard League Scotland have invited those who work with female offenders and their families to reflect on the current state of affairs. In addition to those practitioners, three women whom are resident in the 218 Project kindly gave us their time, sharing with us their stories and their positive experiences while in the 218, displaying that change can be possible when it operates on the principles of welfare and treatment, rather than incarceration. While we welcome progress, we must remain vigilant in highlighting the on-going difficulties experienced by those women in the Scottish criminal justice system.

Read coverage of these issues in today's Sunday Herald:
Women's prison population rises by 120%: http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/crime-courts/womens-prison-population...
Locking up women not the answer: http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/home-news/locking-women-up-not-answer...

Women Offenders

Howard League Scotland supported the findings and recommendations of the Commission for Women Offenders’ report published in April 2012, the majority of which were accepted by the Scottish Government. The Cabinet Secretary for Justice made his second annual report to the Scottish Parliament on progress to date. His report can be found here.

Howard League Scotland provided evidence to the Justice Committee expressing concern that the Scottish Government does not intend to reduce the capacity of the female prison estate and that this is likely to militate against greater use of community-based disposals for women. Our submission can be read here.

Angiolini Commission on Women Offenders

Howard League Scotland welcomed the publication of the Commission on Women Offenders final report. The detailed report exposes how women’s experiences in prison differ significantly from those of male prisoners; illustrating that those women who receive a custodial sentence have complex needs and troubled pasts. Often they have experienced extreme deprivation, suffer from high rates of mental health problems and are often repeat victims of sexual and physical violence. As such, these women are among Scotland’s most vulnerable citizens.
Some key numbers:
• Under 2% of convicted women in 2010/2011 involved serious violence
• 75% of custodial sentences imposed on women are for 6 months or less
• 5%, percentage of women in overall 2010/2011 Scottish prison population , compared with 3.5% in 2000
• Only 30% of women on remand go on to receive a custodial sentence
• Women’s imprisonment in Scotland increased at a greater rate than male imprisonment.
• 80% of women in Cornton Vale are reported to have mental health difficulties
• Women are 10 times more likely to self-harm than male prisoners
• 35% indicated they had committed the offence to gain money for drugs (compared with 16% of men prisoners)
• 39% of women had not worked in the year prior to the offence
• 23% had not been employed for the previous 5 years
• 71% of women in prison in Scotland have no qualifications

Read the full report here: http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Resource/0039/00391828.pdf

SCCJR: Female Imprisonment in Scotland

This latest report from the SCCJR outlines the key issues regarding women’s penal policy in Scotland. In particular, the report highlights why the characteristics of women’s offending differs so considerably from men’s. Women, they write ‘are typically convicted of relatively minor crimes that pose little public risk and, because they are usually convicted of offences that are less serious than those committed by men’. The report also addresses a troubling rise in the number of women sent to prison in Scotland in the last 15 years which has not been mirrored by a corresponding increase in women’s offending. The report’s main aim then is to explore the main causal factors driving the increased number of women incarcerated in Scotland.

Read the report here: Understanding the Drivers of Female Imprisonment in Scotland 








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