UNCORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE
To be published as HC 742-i v

House of COMMONS

Oral EVIDENCE

TAKEN BEFORE the

Justice Committee

Women Offenders

Tuesday 18 December 2012

Alison, Zoe, Niki, Amy and Kate Johnson

Evidence heard in Private Questions 30–73

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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Justice Committee

on Tuesday 18 December 2012

Members present:

Sir Alan Beith (Chair)

Steve Brine

Mr Robert Buckland

Rehman Chishti

Jeremy Corbyn

Mr Elfyn Llwyd

Seema Malhotra

Andy McDonald

________________

Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Alison, Zoe, Niki, Amy and Kate Johnson gave evidence.

Chair: Thank you very much for coming in to help us today. As you have seen because most of you were here through the previous session, we are just starting to look at how women are dealt with in the criminal justice system. I will just explain who we are and then perhaps you can tell us who you are. I will start on that side of the room.

Rehman Chishti: Certainly. I am a Member of Parliament for Gillingham in Kent.

Jeremy Corbyn: Jeremy Corbyn, MP for Islington North and a member of this Committee doing this inquiry into women in prison. Thank you for coming today.

Seema Malhotra: I am Seema Malhotra. I am the Member of Parliament for Feltham and Heston, which is in west London.

Andy McDonald: I am Andy McDonald. I am a brand-new MP from Middlesbrough, so I find these places as daunting as you do.

Mr Llwyd: My name is Elfyn Llwyd. I am a Member of Parliament from north Wales, and before I was elected in 1992 I did criminal and family work, both as a solicitor and for the Bar.

Chair: I am Alan Beith. I am the Chairman of the Committee. I am the Member of Parliament for a constituency on the border of England and Scotland, BerwickuponTweed.

Nick Walker: I am Nick Walker. I am the Clerk or secretary of the Committee.

Gemma Buckland: I am Gemma Buckland. I am a policy specialist on the Committee and I am supporting the Committee in this inquiry.

Mr Buckland: I am Robert Buckland, no relation to Gemma. I am MP for Swindon. Before I became elected in 2010, I was a barrister, prosecuting and defending in the Crown court and often representing women offenders. I also sit as a parttime judge in the Crown court, usually in the Birmingham area.

Steve Brine: Hello, I am Steve Brine. I am a Member of Parliament for Winchester in Hampshire.

Q30 Chair: Let us start from that end and work along.

Kate Johnson: I am Kate Johnson. I work for Women in Prison at the Women’s Support Centre in Surrey, as a specialist substance misuse worker.

Amy: I am Amy from Women in Prison.

Niki: I am Niki, and I have had two experiences of prison, one 10 years ago and one this year, for fairly minor misdemeanours associated with mental health issues.

Zoe: My name is Zoe. I am coming here from Revolving Doors and I have been in prison three times.

Alison: I am Alison. I am from Kent and I have just got out of prison after serving an 18-year sentence. I have only been out two and a half weeks.

Q31 Chair: Can I just tell you that the acoustics in the room are not that good, so you will have to speak up a bit? Alison set a splendid example there; we could hear precisely what she said. We will all need to do that as well, just to make sure.

Was any help offered to any of you with the things that may have led to you getting involved in crime, before you got involved in the criminal justice system? Was there any point at which you were offered help that could make a difference?

Niki: I started offending a long time ago, when I don’t think mental health services were as widespread and as well funded as they perhaps are now. I certainly had no help and no support, and I was too afraid and didn’t want to discuss some of the personal issues that I had that were linked to my offending in public court, mainly for fear of getting in the local paper. So I didn’t access any help.

Q32 Chair: What sort of help might have made a difference to any of you, if you look back and think, "If only somebody had done this or said that"?

Zoe: With me, it would have been housing-then I wouldn’t have moved in with drug dealers-and counselling.

Niki: Counselling and mentoring for me.

Q33 Chair: Somebody said mentoring.

Niki: Me.

Q34 Chair: Does anybody else feel there is something that would have made a difference and might have stopped you getting involved in crime, or continuing?

Alison: Before I went to prison, I was actually seeing a mental health worker at the outpatients’. I asked him for help; he just gave me anti-depressants and sent me away. Whether the system has changed outside now or not I’m still quite unaware, to be honest. The response I’m having, getting out this time, is-but back then, 18 years ago, no.

Zoe: Also, drug treatment; better drug support around that, because I am involved in groups now that really do a lot of peer support, and that has really helped me.

Q35 Chair: You have been to a drug treatment centre.

Zoe: Yes; I have been in drug treatment for years.

Q36 Mr Buckland: You said something about peer support. Is that where people have been through the same experience?

Zoe: Yes. That has really, really helped me a lot.

Q37 Mr Buckland: Because they have walked in your shoes, have they not?

Zoe: Definitely. That is what has helped me turn things around, definitely.

Niki: I am now engaged with the probation service. There is a big programme around peer mentoring, which is very successful. For women it is fairly new, but it is certainly very good.

Q38 Mr Buckland: Niki, I read your biography, and I really liked it when you said that you were neither quite mad nor altogether bad. That sums up, certainly, my experience of the criminal justice system. I have met lots of people with mental health problems, some bad people, but often very sad people as well. Perhaps trying to get other people with those experiences to work more in the system will help people in all your positions to rehabilitate.

Niki: I certainly was engaged with probation. I had had a probation order before I had my first custodial sentence. The challenge, or the difficulty, was that there was very little joined-up thinking, so I couldn’t get referred to any mental health treatment. As Zoe said, there was very little emphasis on housing need. I didn’t have housing need, but I know a lot of women in prison who do and come in and out after short sentences, revolving door, engaged in probation at some point, but probation are very limited in what they can do. The emphasis of probation, even today, is still very much on punishing you. It is seen as a curb on your freedom and a requirement upon you. A lot of women have very chaotic, complicated lives. They find making appointments and keeping appointments, when they feel that they are being punished and not rehabilitated through the probation service, very challenging.

Q39 Mr Llwyd: Alison, you have just come out of prison. In the last weeks of prison, what back-up was there, or was there a seamless transition out? What support are you getting now, and what exactly is happening with you at the moment, if I may ask?

Alison: Just before I sat parole, you’ve got to get everything ready before you go in to sit parole. They told me that I would have my probation officer, but she seems to be on sick quite a lot so I asked for a back-up officer. That was arranged. I asked for a mentor out in the community, totally independent from all authorities. That was arranged.

Q40 Chair: You had to ask for those things.

Alison: Yes; you’ve got to seek it yourself. I also asked for a DIP worker, not for drugs but for alcohol. They were quite reluctant to take me on because I didn’t have anything to do with drugs and it was very hard to find anybody out there who will support people with alcohol issues, especially in my area. That was all set up, and I went to sit parole and obviously I got the parole. I got supported housing with a key worker. It is third-stage drug and alcohol. You have a key worker, and if you have any issues you can go to them.

I got out. I didn’t see my normal probation officer, I saw the back-up officer the day I got out. "Hello, tara"-they leave you and that’s it. I said to my key worker, "What do I do about sorting money from social security?" "Just go along that street and tell them you want to make a claim." I have been 18 years in prison. I am struggling to find out how to use a basic phone, never mind walking along and walking in these places that weren’t even built when I was out. I went in, and they told me that my claim would be sorted four hours later, after interviews and paperwork.

Then I tried to arrange to see my mentor and she says, "I am not available until Saturday." I met somebody else. Actually, I met a friend from prison on day release and she gave me some support. I constantly tried to phone my DIP worker. He was unavailable; I couldn’t get hold of him. When I eventually did get hold of him, I haven’t got an appointment until this Thursday coming.

I really want to stay anonymous in this because the place where I am staying is supported housing. I have an empty flat next door, and all I’ve got is a key worker who keeps going in and having a bath and going out, basically on the drink all the time, partying. I tried to go to her and say, "I need this; I need that." I’ve had nothing. I had to go to another person’s flat and ask them to lend me a cup so I can make a cup of tea. I’m still waiting. It’ll be three weeks on Thursday I have been out of prison and I still haven’t been paid anything from the jobseeker’s allowance. I haven’t been paid anything. I’ve had to go to the housing place and sort out my housing benefit on my own. I’ve had absolutely nothing.

I went to attend probation last week and she said, "How are you?" I said, "I’m very much still institutionalised. Prison is very structured and, coming out, society is not structured. You have to make your own structure." She went, "Right, see you next week." "Oh", she says on the way out, "can I just tell you your back-up officer has changed, and next time I see you you will meet your new one?" That’s it.

Q41 Chair: Can I just reassure you that it will be anonymous? We are taking a note so that we can say what people said, but it will not relate to named individuals at all.

Alison: I’ve got nothing. I got a £46 grant when I left prison. I had to ask them for a crisis loan and they would only give me £40. I got a phone call yesterday and was asked to attend here on the spur of the moment, and I don’t mind because I think you really need to know how hard it is. I know where I’ve been and what I’ve done in prison, but for anybody to come out it is so easy for somebody to reoffend again.

Q42 Chair: Amy, you are not long from release, are you? What was your experience like?

Amy: My experience of life in prison was a long time ago because I was re-arrested and went back. I went to study as a mental health nurse, to get my qualification in nursing, but I was re-arrested again because-

Q43 Chair: At the release stage, when you actually came out.

Amy: I came out in 2010, and then I was not well due to mental health suffering and what has gone through my head. Then, when I came out, Women in Prison were helping me with counselling and my medication. They are the ones helping me.

Q44 Chair: And who was it that was helping you?

Amy: Women in Prison; Women in Prison were helping me.

Q45 Chair: What about family? Did some of you have family links that became very difficult or impossible to maintain in prison?

Amy: I have grandchildren that I was looking after before I went to prison. My grandson has a disability problem. Even if I am not well, I was the one looking after him.

Q46 Chair: You were his carer, were you? You were looking after him?

Amy: Yes, I was looking after him before I went back to prison. Before I went back to prison, I had a granddaughter, again, I was looking after.

Q47 Chair: What happened to them while you were in prison?

Amy: I remember the day I was arrested. The baby was just seven months old and they took him away from me, and my grandson, who is disabled. When I came back, I couldn’t get them back.

Q48 Chair: So they were taken into care.

Amy: Yes. My grandson is back with me, but he’s moved out because he’s 18. He is 18 now. The social worker is looking after him, but there are two granddaughters now. They are into care. It is very hard for me because they know me very well and now I can only see them once in a month.

Q49 Chair: Does anybody else have family experiences that are relevant?

Niki: I was quite lucky. I am unusual in that I was one of the few women that I knew in prison, on both occasions that I was there, who only had one child. It was very unusual to meet a women in prison who did not have several children, very often with different partners, very often children in care or children about to be placed in care if they didn’t have supporting family. I had one daughter, and my siblings closed ranks around me really and helped with my daughter, but there were a lot of women who didn’t have strong families or had several children. Most of them who were in prison who I knew actually knew they were going to prison, so they had gone to court and there had been a probation report requested by the court. Then they’ve gone back for sentencing, so the majority had actually been able to prepare to go into prison. There aren’t that many women that are literally arrested and then sent to court and given a custodial sentence. But, even so, if you haven’t got family who will support you, and most women in prison have been failed by an education system, social care or social services, or gone through care and all those systems have failed them, they don’t have the life skills to problem-solve if they have children.

Kate Johnson: I have a client, a woman whom I worked with recently, who was recalled back to prison for breaching her licence conditions. She missed two probation appointments. At the time she was living in Hounslow and had to report to Guildford for her probation. She was living in Hounslow in a bed and breakfast because she was fleeing domestic violence. Her newborn baby had been removed from her when he was 10 days old and she had access four days a week. She didn’t have any additional help with cost or travel. She was coming off drugs and dealing with domestic violence. Because she then missed these two appointments and had no way of contacting probation, she was recalled and her child has now been adopted while she was in prison. She was recalled for 14 days at the end of her licence. She was then released. She is no longer able to go back to the accommodation that was given to her in Hounslow because she is deemed intentionally homeless, so she is now back with her abusive partner. The only support she receives is from us. Because she is no longer on licence, she doesn’t get any support from probation and she doesn’t have any contact with her child now at all.

Q50 Steve Brine: Alison, you said it is very hard to not reoffend. Given the utter failure of the system from what you have told us, which is quite shocking, is there an element in your mind that thinks, frankly, it would be easier to reoffend to get back into the routine that you know, given that you have done 18 years of it?

Alison: I wouldn’t have to reoffend. You just have to go to probation and say, "I’m not coping", and they would put me back inside anyway. But when you’re sat there on your own in a flat with nothing-I have seen it over the years many a time-there are girls knocking on the door at Christmas to get back in prison.

Q51 Mr Buckland: Alison, you are on a licence, are you not?

Alison: I am a life licence, yes.

Q52 Mr Buckland: So you can be recalled-

Alison: At any time.

Mr Buckland: That’s right.

Niki: There are two very good women’s open prisons. I was reading an article in The Economist on the train coming here. It is not a paper known for its tolerant view of theatre, but it was talking about theatre in prison as a rehabilitation. Brilliant article. One of the open prisons cited had a reoffending rate of 7% because the women have a staged introduction back into society. 80% of them leaving prison are already in work or in education, or they are going into training. It is a staggered approach, and it just seems crazy that girls can come in and out of prison three or four times a year for a month and go out with nothing, and, as Alison says, it is much easier sometimes to reoffend.

Q53 Rehman Chishti: Amy and Niki, you talked about the issue of mental health. When in prison did you have access to psychiatric help? I know in public, if you are outside at the moment, you can either be given a section 2 or a section 3 mental health order, where you get treatment for a certain period of time, and that could be simply for your own health. Was there such a structured mental health approach in prison, and after that, were you directed to somewhere where you could get that continued mental health treatment?

Kate Johnson: Under sections 2 and 3, you have to be a significant risk to yourself or others and you have to be unwilling to access treatment to be detained under that section, so that is quite different.

Q54 Rehman Chishti: Sure. With regard to the other argument about mental health, where you have mental health concerns in prison, were you given treatment for that, and, also, when you came out were you directed to the right place to get continued help?

Amy: Yes; I was given treatment in the prison, and then when I came out my GP sent me to counselling.

Niki: But, Amy, I guess when you say "treatment", you mean medication.

Amy: Medication, yes.

Niki: No counselling.

Amy: No counselling, no.

Niki: No, there was nothing like that, although my experience in Bronzefield this year, which is a private prison, is that they have a wonderful alcohol support worker, an alcohol nurse and an outreach alcohol officer. There are AA meetings, which are held on a weekly basis in the prison, which the prison accommodates. There are very supportive prison staff and a lot of care from normal officers, even if there was no psychiatric treatment available. I was treated as a high risk, so I was monitored very closely and supervised throughout movements in the prison. The everyday officers and the alcohol treatment people did their absolute utmost to give as much pastoral care as they could.

Q55 Rehman Chishti: You would say that people could benefit by having proper mental health treatment within prison.

Niki: I don’t think there is any counselling for mental health issues and there is no referral outside once you have served your sentence. You can usually get all the medication you want, providing you know what it is you want and you can convince the doctors in the prison system enough; but, no, that is the only treatment that there is.

Zoe: Can I say something about the drug thing? You are getting people physically off drugs, but all the groups and things are not compulsory. So people might be physically off drugs, but mentally you are just going to come out and go back on them. My experience has been very different from Niki’s. I didn’t find any care.

Kate Johnson: The programme in Bronzefield was a pilot project that was funded by the DAT. We did a kind of wrap-around service with them where women could go in, detox and have a programme. Then, through a care worker, they are referred to us. We went in before the end of the programme and did a whole approach, but that isn’t common.

Q56 Rehman Chishti: Alison, you were going to say something on this.

Alison: On the issue still of mental health, I have been a severe selfharmer for 20 years and I never selfharmed for the last eight years; 12 months ago I actually selfharmed in one of the open prisons. I have never, ever been given any counselling in all my sentence. I have been heavily medicated. I decided to come off all this medication myself eight years ago, and, like I said, I had a lapse 12 months ago. In the open prison I asked for support to get me some kind of medical professional to help me. Two days before I was released somebody came to see me and said, "I’ve come to start the work with you"-two days before I was released. I said, "I’m about to go out the door", and I’m still waiting three weeks later for this support that has never been mentioned by anybody since.

Q57 Seema Malhotra: Thank you so much for sharing so much about your experiences. I just want to ask a little more. You talked about your family relationships when you went in and how they may have been affected, whether that is with wider family or with children. I am interested to know whether anything could have helped. Would you change anything about the way prison works that would help you better keep relationships with family where you wanted to?

Zoe: With the whole visiting thing, you are not going to have a good relationship with anyone. I was put on closed visits for a year of my sentence on suspicion of having drugs. I wasn’t caught with anything. You’re just behind glass. So, to have any sort of relationship with anyone is impossible, isn’t it?

Niki: I have certainly known of women who I’ve been in prison with who’ve had small children, and in the visiting area they can’t get off their seat; so they can’t get down and hug their children. It’s very difficult to have any physical contact with them. It’s very much down to the wider family to bring the children to the prison to see the mother. It’s very difficult.

Zoe: Men tend not to be as supportive to women. Women tend to kind of visit men more than men visit women.

Alison: Also, there’s the distance. I have a son, and when I first got sentenced I had two choices of prisons. One was down south and one was up north. I ended up in Durham and my son was in Lancashire, and it was very few and far between with the visits. Even now, to this day, my son is with my brother. I am quite fortunate, but the rapport with my son is not good. It could have been made better if I had been maybe closer and visits would have been easier to access me.

Q58 Jeremy Corbyn: For all of you, how did you spend your time in prison? Was it doing nothing, was it education, was it working or was it just being locked up and staring at the wall?

Niki: Bronzefield make you have a programme. You are not allowed to sit and do nothing, or it’s very unusual. They either make you go to the gym, you have a supervised sport and then you are able to work in the gym on your own, or they make you do a dance class or yoga or something. A lot of those classes are designed to build team building, so you are punished or penalised if you choose to sit all day in your cell.

Q59 Jeremy Corbyn: Did you find that good?

Niki: Yes, absolutely.

Zoe: Bullwood Hall has a cardboard box factory and you are sewing shorts all day long. That’s what you do in that prison. Different prisons are different. There is very good education and things in Holloway. Can I make a suggestion? You’ve got televisions in cells, why don’t you show some inspirational DVDs? Instead of people just watching "Jeremy Kyle" or whatever, put something good on the telly.

Jeremy Corbyn: It sounds like a double punishment.

Zoe: Get some exprisoners to make some DVDs of how they have turned their life around and things and show them that.

Q60 Jeremy Corbyn: Did you have access to DVDs?

Zoe: There is a DVD player in the office that does go through all the tellies in the cells, and at Christmas or something they’ll put a film on, so they could do it.

Q61 Jeremy Corbyn: But you did not have access to a DVD library itself.

Zoe: No.

Niki: You could in Bronzefield if you were an enhanced prisoner.

Q62 Jeremy Corbyn: Alison, what about you?

Alison: I don’t know what to say.

Q63 Steve Brine: What did you do all day for 18 years?

Alison: For three years I kicked my shoes off, laid on my bed, heavily medicated and thought that maybe I’ll beat the system. Then I stepped up, walked into the education and said I’d like to do some studying. From then to now I’ve ended up with seven diplomas, three Alevels and I’m quite addicted to studying.

Q64 Jeremy Corbyn: What do you study?

Alison: At the moment I am studying heating and ventilation, because two days a week I volunteer with Nacro, and I teach young boys construction work.

Jeremy Corbyn: Good for you; well done.

Q65 Andy McDonald: I just want to ask you all a generic question. However you came into the system, for whatever reason, given your experience, were the custodial sentences you received the right response to your circumstances, and, if not, what would have been the right response? Are you better for the experiences that you have had?

Zoe: For my first offence-it was my first ever offence-I got 18 months for importation of cannabis. That introduced me to loads of criminals and drug people. Then my next offence was four years for heroin and then the next offence four months, years later. I know they are probably less likely to give someone such a harsh sentence now, but I don’t think it was the right response for me, no.

Q66 Andy McDonald: What would have been?

Zoe: Especially with the heroin one, it would have been more helpful to get me off of drugs, to give me help with drug treatment rather than a custodial sentence. That is in my opinion.

Amy: For me, I didn’t commit the offence they said I committed, so, for me, being in prison was very, very hard for me, very tough, because you went to prison for things that you didn’t know about. It just put me back to be mental, you know. But, when I came out, I went to study, from access to nursing to a diploma degree, and I was doing my masters. Then before I went back, because I came out of prison, I just walked out of prison because I didn’t commit that offence. But, when I was arrested, I went back for what was supposed to be three years but the judge released me after 10 months. Since I came back again, I am just trying to cope because it really disturbed my mental health; it really disturbed me because it is just like I am in prison for what I didn’t do. It is very, very hard for me to cope.

Niki: Prison, for me, was an easy option. I quite enjoyed it. It was warm and safe; my housing benefit was paid because my sentence was short. I had access to the alcohol treatment worker. I don’t think I benefited from it, but I was typical of a lot of women who found that it really wasn’t very challenging. I’m always amazed at the number of girls in prison who know each other. It’s like a holiday camp for some of them. They share experiences of different jails, different dates, different times. It’s habitual. Certainly, a lot more demanding community sentence would have made me really face up to some of my issues-my addiction issues and my sense of responsibility. That would have given me an opportunity to do something about my self-worth, because my selfesteem was rock bottom. Once you have gone to prison, it is very easy for magistrates to send you back again because there are very few alternative options and it is seen as punishment. A lot more focus on rehabilitation in the community would be incredibly useful.

Alison: Obviously, for my crime there is only one sentence. Yes, I do believe it was right. You have a price to pay for taking somebody’s life and I fully accept that. The length of time, however? You can only be punished for so long and then you have to be rehabilitated. That is what I was lacking. There are quite a few other girls with life sentences that are lacking in the rehabilitation-the length of time to be rehabilitated. The process is too short.

Q67 Steve Brine: Just one quick question to all of you because it is a subject that just keeps coming up here. When you were in prison, did any of you sit down and think, "Damn it, you know what? The real thing that I am missing is being able to vote in elections"?

Kate Johnson: We hear that all the time!

Steve Brine: Yes.

Kate Johnson: When we ask women what their needs are-

Q68 Steve Brine: That’s their big thing?

Kate Johnson:-they need to vote.

Q69 Steve Brine: Yes, I thought it would be.

Niki: It is so far down the agenda, it’s just-

Q70 Steve Brine: Sure. Maybe the record could put "irony" in brackets next to that.

Kate Johnson: They still should have the right to do so.

Q71 Chair: Have any of you had contact with a women’s centre-a place that was specifically designed to address the needs of women who are in difficulty or in trouble with the criminal justice system?

Zoe: We’ve set up our own little group-a peer-run group-Women in Progress. It has the same initials as Women in Prison. It is a drug and alcohol service user group that I am involved in, in Camden. It has been really good. There are a lot of women who have had to work on the streets and been abused and things. They find it really good to talk to other women who have been through similar things.

Amy: We have a group at Women in Prison, which I’m attending with other women. It helps me to cope with my mental health.

Q72 Chair: Have any of you had experience of being on community programme activities with men?

Witnesses: Yes.

Q73 Chair: Would you rather have been on all-women programmes or were you happy with them as mixed?

Zoe: I didn’t mind. I didn’t mind being with the men.

Niki: No, I quite enjoyed it. Sorry, that is probably completely the wrong thing to say. We had a really good team. We spent a lot of time working in a school for the disabled in a part of Surrey.

Chair: Thank you very much. We are very grateful to you all. It takes a bit of courage to come and talk in a parliamentary setting, and we do appreciate that. We wish you all well in the future. We really hope that all the things that you are trying to do now to change your lives really work out. We hope you have a happy Christmas-perhaps a happier one than some previous Christmases have been. You go with our warm thanks for your help today.

Prepared 7th March 2013