Moves under way to support women, not imprison them
30th September 2009
Two-and-a-half years after Baroness Corston’s blueprint for overhauling the women’s prison system proposed that non-violent female offenders be sent to support centres instead of being locked up, the government has begun a series of meetings aimed at improving community-based help for these vulnerable women.
Justice minister Maria Eagle, last week met with magistrates, health workers, Crown Prosecution Office staff and prison officials in Birmingham at the first of 10 planned sessions on how to improve support for offenders who have a history of addiction and abuse and who are often caring for young children. Eagle said the events, dubbed Women in Focus, are the next step in ministers’ efforts to implement Corston’s recommendations.
While some campaigners are impatient about the pace of change, Corston, who is now chairing a new all-party parliamentary group aimed at pushing through her reform agenda, says she is “very encouraged” by the move. “The vision that I had was going to be at least five years if not 10,” she says . “It’s going in the right direction. I wouldn’t want to say, ‘Oh, yes, it’s all implemented.’ It couldn’t have been – it’s only two years.”
Judges and magistrates need a clear understanding of the circumstances of offenders’ lives, and an awareness of alternatives to prison, Corston argues. The Labour peer’s report was commissioned by ministers after six inmates at Styal women’s prison in Cheshire killed themselves in one year. It highlighted the system’s failure to cope with a deeply troubled population of offenders, many of them dependent on drugs, trapped in destructive relationships, and haunted by histories of abuse and instability.
The report concluded that most imprisoned women pose no danger to society and would be better served by “one-stop shop” support centres offering drug treatment, mental health services, education and other help.