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Justice Committee - Minutes of EvidenceHC 92
Taken before the Justice Committee
on Tuesday 18 December 2012
Sir Alan Beith (Chair)
Mr Robert Buckland
Mr Elfyn Llwyd
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Rt Hon Baroness Corston and Liz Hogarth OBE gave evidence.
Chair: We are very glad to welcome Baroness Corston to begin the work we are going to do on women offenders and to record the key role that you have had in focusing attention on this matter and bringing forward proposals, in which I believe you have been assisted a lot by Liz Hogarth, and we welcome her to our session as well. Are there any interests to be declared?
Mr Llwyd: Yes, I would like to declare an interest. I am a member of the steering group of the all-party group on girls in the criminal justice system.
Q1 Chair: Thank you very much. What do you see as the main successes and the main disappointments, first of all, that occurred during the previous Government’s taking forward of your recommendations? How far did they get? What was successful and what was disappointing?
Baroness Corston: The first thing that was a success was that they acknowledged the arguments I put forward about the need for the abolition of routine strip-searching of women, which was hugely damaging, utterly pointless because nothing was ever found, a waste of staff time, damaging to staff and prisoner relations, and, what is more, something that is a terrible thing to do to women who are either mentally ill or who have been victims of abuse-whether domestic violence, sexual abuse or childhood sexual abuse. Such women are overrepresented in our prisons. That was the first thing of which I was particularly proud and pleased.
Given that we were entering a time of what we all recognise to be great economic challenge, I thought that the previous Government had the foresight to dedicate £15.6 million to acknowledge a sea change in thinking for diverting women from custody by setting up and funding women’s community projects, as they are called, women’s centres or onestop shops. I call them women’s centres, but, whatever you call them, they were there to help women to turn their lives around; and they were open not just to women offenders who could be diverted there by courts but also to women at risk of offending, many of whom know they are at risk and will selfrefer.
Another thing that made a huge difference in the previous Government was the critical mass of women Ministers, which I cannot overstress. There was Harriet Harman and Barbara Follett, who were pushing the equalities agenda. In the Home Office, we had Baroness Scotland, Vera Baird, who is the PPS to the Home Secretary, and Fiona Mactaggart. Then, of course, when this agenda got under way, Maria Eagle was given the job of Ministerial Champion. Having that critical mass of women who instinctively understood what this was about was absolutely crucial, in my opinion.
The last thing that was very good was that we got civil servants working together. That might not seem very much, and what I am about to say might offend Lord O’Donnell, but, when I worked at the Department for Education and Employment with David Blunkett from 1997 to 2001, what I discovered was the way in which civil servants are comfortable in their silos. I remember David Blunkett as Secretary of State saying to me that we had to set up the first ever child care strategy and would I go along to the meetings. I could not believe it; it took ages for people from all these various Departments, who naturally had to work together, to put together a child care strategy. There were arguments for a few weeks about who was going to take the minutes. The great thing about the Criminal Justice Women’s Policy Unit, which Liz Hogarth ran because Liz has given her life to women offenders, was that it was absolutely crucial in getting people from different Departments to work together.
Q2 Chair: Perhaps I could just ask Liz Hogarth what kind of obstacles you experienced in trying to get the civil service machine to go with this agenda.
Liz Hogarth: I have to say that there was a complete sea change for us. There was a small group of people working in the Women’s Policy Team, and originally, from 2004, we were doing the unfortunately named WORP-Women’s Offending Reduction Programme. However hard we worked with civil servants, the general response at that time was, "Women are only 5% of the prison population; we must focus on the larger numbers." It was a real battle to get attention.
The sea change that came with the joined-up work and the crossdepartmental team was huge. It was a very exciting, vibrant way of working, because what we had was Maria Eagle, with an interministerial group, and all those Ministers from across the piece-the Home Office, the DWP, Communities and Local Government, Health-all sitting round a table. That meant that their officials were suddenly required to be there and to make change happen. It was a huge difference. That, coupled with the support of the Gender Equality Duty as well, just meant the whole profile took off in a huge way.
Q3 Chair: What about NOMS as an organisation? Was that brought into this effectively or not?
Liz Hogarth: It was. I have to be honest and say that, originally, I was part of NOMS within the Women’s Policy Team and moved from NOMS to MOJ. I think NOMS did struggle because they were very conscious of, and in those days were very focused on, imprisonment, and that is where the 5% mantra came from. There was a big shift. The difficulty for NOMS, though, is that their remit is offenders. Therefore, it was not within their remit to take on board and understand the agenda where we were trying to work with Jean’s approach, which was to try and cut off women at risk of offending getting sucked into the criminal justice system. Then and now, there are still difficulties around that for them because it is not within their normal daytoday work.
Q4 Chair: What was disappointing?
Baroness Corston: The biggest disappointment for me was the failure to accept the argument that I advanced for small custodial units for women. There are only 13 women’s prisons in England; there aren’t any in Wales, fortunately. If a woman lives in Truro and is sent to prison, the nearest prison is north of Bristol. The notion that her children could be taken to visit her, given the profile of women offenders, who are generally poor, is laughable. That break is catastrophic, and a significant number of the children of women prisoners end up in prison. A woman whom I met in Styal had just given birth. She herself had been born there.
In view of the huge emotional and, indeed, public sector cost of these 13 big prisons, I thought that small local custodial units, which could be serviced by people who were not necessarily fixed on site but they could service two in adjoining counties, for example, would work. I had seen it work when I went to Dublin. There is a centre in Dublin called Dóchas, which is Irish for "hope". It is in Dublin, in the city centre, and it turns women’s lives around, as indeed does the 218 Centre in Glasgow, funded by the Scottish Executive. They have a similar arrangement there.
Q5 Chair: We found similar arrangements in Northern Ireland as well.
Baroness Corston: Yes. I remember giving evidence to the Northern Ireland Committee during the last Parliament about this. Liz may know more about this than I do because she was at the sharp end. I was told that the reason why the previous Government were not going to have the small custodial units was because women themselves did not want them. On the face of it, I could accept why that was. In men’s prisons, if there is a dispute, it probably ends in violence. In women’s prisons, if there is a dispute, it usually results in bullying; it is verbal abuse. Women can become very frightened of people who are bullying, but you can run a prison on the basis of human rights, reciprocal respect and no bullying.
When I was at Cornton Vale prison in Scotland, the then governor Sue Brookes, who was an absolutely wonderful public servant, when she went to that prison, did this DVD, which everybody had to see, staff and all. It would be reciprocal respect, no shouting and no bullying; and it works. So I felt that this business of, "Women don’t want it" was, in a way, just a reason not to do it. For me, it was not a good enough reason to invalidate the argument. That, for me, was the biggest disappointment. The other less serious disappointment was that, in the unit about which Liz was talking and which she led, the slow response of the Department of Health was not helpful.
Chair: It is an unusual argument in the criminal justice system to say that those being sentenced don’t want it. It is not an argument that normally prevails in any other context than this.
Q6 Steve Brine: Good morning. I seem to be sitting rather close to you. I don’t know what is wrong with me today; I am sorry about that. It is very nice to see you so closely anyway. Do you believe that the current Government accept that the majority of women in prisons should not be there, from what you have read and what you have heard?
Baroness Corston: In a debate in the House of Lords earlier this year, Lord McNally said-I presume this was on the basis of personal knowledge; I do not know, but he did say this on the record-that he knew that a large number of women who were in prison should not be there, so certainly that has been said.
Q7 Steve Brine: Then, on the other side of it, do you think they believe that womenonly community-based organisations work best?
Baroness Corston: I don’t know whether they believe that. I believe it passionately because I have seen it work. I worked as a women’s organiser 35 years ago and I saw that womenonly organisations were a very good way of getting women involved in whatever enterprise you are trying to set up or sustain. As to the rest, I could not tell you.
Q8 Steve Brine: To Liz Hogarth, if I may, from your perspective as a former head of a women’s strategy team, how would you best describe the strategy of the current Government?
Liz Hogarth: If I am very honest-
Steve Brine: Please be.
Liz Hogarth: -I would have to say there is no visible strategy as far as I can see. There is no written strategy. That is not to say things are not happening for women. I do think there are some commitments still to the women’s projects, and the fact that NOMS have been funding them for this year is a good indication However, I fear that, without the overarching framework of a strategy that sets out, "This is where we want to go and this is how we are going to get there"-unless there is the strategy that offers a framework to people out in the real world, in the field-the Government are missing a trick there. We hear from some probation trusts that are saying, "I no longer know what is a priority for women. I have guidelines that give me suggestions, but I don’t know the direction of travel."
There have been promises of the publication of strategic priorities. The initial commitment was made last March; we are still waiting. Now the commitment is that that will happen in the new year. I think that is great. It is really good news to hear that Helen Grant is going to lead on the agenda, but those strategic priorities are talking about women offenders. We seem to have lost the whole agenda for women at risk, and, for me, that is the Corston approach. I am not sure whether that has been deliberate. There has been a huge turnover of civil servants where the expertise was held on women, so I am not sure how well the corporate memory has been held and passed on to current Ministers, but it is very worrying not to have something in place that one could call a strategy.
Q9 Steve Brine: With regard to the Corston strategy then, the MOJ have promised this crossdepartmental strategy on women offenders, and there will be a White Paper in the new year on the rehabilitation revolution, within which it may well be included. But, Baroness Corston, what changes would you make to your recommendations if you were asked again, and, if you were, let us say, refreshing it-your sequel to the current Government? What changes would you make, or does it all hold firm and it is just, "Get on with it, guys"?
Baroness Corston: I don’t think I would make any significant changes. I would want to emphasise the crucial importance of the strategy to which Liz Hogarth referred, but also regular reporting to Parliament. What was great about the previous Government was that Maria Eagle-you can check the record-routinely reported to Parliament with written ministerial statements. Then you could monitor the progress they were making against the targets that they had set. That is a crucial point.
The other thing that I would want to do if I could now is to look at foreign national women in our prisons. I wanted to do it at the time, but there were things I had to exclude from my remit because I only had nine months from beginning to the report being on the Minister’s desk, which is not very long, seeing that two months in the summer were virtually wasted months. The plight of foreign national women in our prisons is truly shocking, because most of them are there because they are very poor and obviously their children are thousands of miles away. There is one wonderful organisation called Hibiscus, which Liz now chairs, which works with these women. But, in Holloway, the last time I visited there, they found that an increasing number of Chinese women were being detained. One woman screamed hysterically for 36 hours. They could not understand why. She thought she was about to be shot. There was nobody there who spoke her language. They now have people who speak Mandarin, but these women are being brought into the country to sell pirated DVDs and the like. You only have to be in a prison now-in Holloway-and see the number of foreign languages into which instructions are translated, to see the very large numbers of women from different nationalities and different parts of the world, who are there generally because they have done the bidding of criminals.
Q10 Jeremy Corbyn: On that point about Holloway, is there enough legal advice and support there about the possibility of those prisoners completing their sentences back home, because my impression is that it is rather limited?
Baroness Corston: When I have been in Holloway or any other women’s prison, I have had no evidence of any systematic support in that way, but Liz might know. Do you?
Liz Hogarth: There is support, with outside agencies going in. Certainly, Hibiscus goes in. Their contract has suffered some cuts in the last couple of years, as the pressures on prisons go across the piece. Again, to refer back to strategy, one difficulty is that there is no longer a foreign national strategy within the women’s estate, and that helped previously to keep people focused on the needs. There could well be slippage happening. Foreign national coordinators in prisons may be good, but, if there is no questioning from the centre and NOMS to make sure that it really is happening, then it becomes unknown.
Q11 Jeremy Corbyn: What would you like to see happening?
Liz Hogarth: A very clear strategy, both for foreign national women and eastern European women in particular, that empowers staff to work well with them in prisons but also is open-facing to the outside agencies to get that advice in. An organisation like Hibiscus, which comes with up to 53 volunteers speaking different languages, can access those women quickly if they are welcomed into that prison environment. They have a very good relationship in Holloway and are very welcomed, but it is the pressure. As I understand it, Holloway now has nearly 600 women in it. That is an awful lot of women in a relatively small prison, and that can make it difficult in accessing and making things happen.
Q12 Mr Llwyd: Good morning. To what extent has the Gender Equality Duty assisted in the development of services to prevent women’s offending?
Baroness Corston: It gave a legislative backstop for the argument about gender specific services. It led to the National Service Framework for Women Offenders; it led to the Gender Specific Standards for Women Prisoners. Once again, that was a crossdepartmental thing, but Harriet Harman and Barbara Follett in Equalities, and Vera Baird, Patricia Scotland, Maria Eagle and Fiona Mactaggart together provided the impetus for saying, "Okay, we have this legislative framework. Now, the challenge is to make sure that there is an effective implementation." We all know that it is ever so easy to pass legislation. The difficulty is making sure that it is implemented. The great thing about that critical mass of women was that they had the authority within Government to make sure that the duty itself could be used in this way, so that when I advanced this argument I was not pushing against a locked door. It was just an easy argument to make. They understood instinctively what I was talking about and that made a huge difference.
Q13 Mr Llwyd: HM Inspectorate of Prisons recently told us: "Simply treating women the same as men will not create the equality that criminal justice agencies now have a statutory duty to promote." It goes on to say that there is a lack of visible leadership and a distinct structure. Do you believe that a system redesign is necessary or even a new model, such as, for example, a Women’s Justice Board, in order to ensure that the recommendations in your report, Baroness Corston, are properly implemented?
Baroness Corston: First of all, I agree with that premise, and what is very gratifying is when people start quoting your arguments back at you. To treat men and women the same is not to guarantee equality, because men and women are equal but they are different and to be treated differently. I have to say that I believed it for many years, but, when I first said it on the record of my report, it was greeted with some scepticism in some places. In my opinion, this agenda is only going to work nationally if there is some strategic national body to overlook the system. In a way, I don’t care what you call it, but what I don’t want is the kind of board that we have seen such as, for example, the Youth Justice Board. It has done great work but it works with young offenders.
I am sorry to keep banging on about this. Women offenders are obviously an extremely important focus and, in a way, have to be the No. 1 focus, but the very strong No. 2 is women at risk. The great thing about the structure we had before was that, with the help of the Corston Independent Funders’ Coalition, from whom you will no doubt be taking evidence at some stage, there was the establishment of 39 centres across the country that adhere to this agenda.
Women can selfrefer. Somebody in my family is a GP, and I remember saying, when I was putting together my thoughts on this report, "What happens when you have a woman who is a ‘heart sink’ patient?" A "heart sink" is someone who walks into your surgery-it is something which happens to Members of Parliament, I know, from my own experience-and your heart sinks because you know this person has a problem but you know you can’t do anything about it. I remember saying, "How would it be if a woman like that came into your surgery and you were able to say, ‘Look, go down to 26 Clark Street, or wherever, to the women’s centre and talk to them’?" The response was, "That would be wonderful." That is happening, but, if you don’t have any kind of national guidance as to the fact that this is an important priority, it either doesn’t happen or it can’t be sustained.
Q14 Mr Llwyd: The Chair referred earlier to our visit to Northern Ireland, which seems to me to be a very good model to adopt. Ms Hogarth, do you have a view on the question I put to Baroness Corston?
Liz Hogarth: We certainly need an infrastructure. It would be helpful to have someone with some sense of independence, too, who can hold everyone to some sort of account, to make that joined-up agenda work. There is no doubt about that. Without that, it will go a bit wobbly, I would say, because, with the best will in the world, it needs someone asking the questions. It is quite a complex agenda. It is a way of doing things differently, and that always takes time.
I fully agree with you in terms of the Northern Ireland project. Looking at something like the Inspire project, you have probation working incredibly closely with very strong women’s centres there, which may have grown up in a political environment. But these are strong women who know how to change people’s lives, and they are there, with probation, who are probably less constrained by working primarily with high risk offenders and resourcing following risk. It was an absolute joy to go over there and speak to probation staff working as one. It was a different role, but there was the interface with the court to make sentencers aware of what was available. That is an ace model.
Baroness Corston: What is absolutely crucial too is that, whatever this organisation is called, the visible leadership has to be ministerial. There has to be somebody who can drive that agenda within Whitehall. That, to me, is a prerequisite. Certainly, Maria Eagle did that when she was a Minister.
Q15 Mr Llwyd: Ms Hogarth, do you know of any examples where the Ministry of Justice might have taken unnecessary or even disproportionate action under the Gender Equality Duty in relation to policies for dealing with offenders?
Liz Hogarth: No, I don’t, to be quite honest. I was a bit taken aback when I read a reference in the most recent guidance to working with women for offender managers and others. I know lots of people found it a very uncomfortable process when they came up against the Gender Duty initially because it did require a huge change of thinking. I can fully accept that some officials thought, "My goodness me, this is disproportionate. We are suddenly having to focus our working week on women and there are so few of them", but I did not see anything that made me think we are getting this out of sync or out of balance.
Q16 Andy McDonald: Baroness Corston, can we focus on women at risk? Could it be that the money spent on building new, smaller, more gender-appropriate units diverts resources that could perhaps be invested to better effect in community-based provision? I am really asking whether you see a case for the view that small custodial units are not feasible.
Baroness Corston: No, I don’t see that they are not feasible, because the cost of running these 13 women’s prisons is astronomical. I think that, probably, the cost overall of having small custodial units may well be the same, but the cost in terms of disruption to human lives and to society is incalculable. You see these television programmes about bad girls. Actually, if you go into a women’s prison, and particularly if you go in as a woman, once they have got past the idea that I have this title and I am somebody’s grandmother, and they can chat to me, you realise that this noise, this aggressive or show-off stance, is a mask for a deeply acknowledged vulnerability. For me, it is important that these women can stay in contact with some aspect of their lives and nurture their children. To hear them on the phone trying to bring up their children is very distressing. For me, the cost, both in financial and human terms, of small custodial units is made.
I understand the institutional resistance of, "We can’t staff them." You can have different ways of staffing organisations. In the eastern region, two amazing women put together a programme for a virtual women’s centre where staff travelled to the women concerned because of the huge dispersal of population in East Anglia. What it requires is imaginative thinking. Without wanting to be rude about anybody in the Ministry of Justice, when it comes to building prisons I don’t think there is much imagination. I will give you one example. When I started my report, I spoke to people who were responsible for building prisons and I said, "How do you build a women’s prison?" The answer was chilling, "Well, we build a prison for men, and then we see how we can tweak it to fit women in."
Q17 Andy McDonald: Related to that-to some extent you have already addressed this-what are your ongoing concerns about the appropriateness of the women’s custodial estate and the regimes therein?
Baroness Corston: The first thing to be said, of course, is that most of the women who are there should not be there. The previous governor of Styal prison in Cheshire, Clive Chatterton, had worked in the Prison Service for 30 years, always in the male estate. His last job was as governor of Styal, one of our biggest women’s prisons. He found that experience deeply traumatising and acknowledged it. There was a very moving piece about him and by him in The Observer newspaper last February, where he said that, when he ran a men’s prison, there would probably be an average of five people who were on some kind of suicide watch or at risk of serious selfharm. In Styal, it was 50 women every day about whom that could be said. He had women there on a sentence of 12 days. You think about the futility of all of that and the damage that it does.
If I thought that prison turned round women’s lives, then I would say perhaps there is an argument for it, and for some offenders it does do some very good work. But, for the generality of women and their children, it teaches them nothing because there is not the time with these short sentences. A 28-day sentence is kind of a norm. That is long enough to lose your home and your children. When you come out, you go to the local authority and say, "I want somewhere to live", and you are told you can have accommodation for a single person. This is if you are lucky. Some local authorities have said, "You have made yourself intentionally homeless by going to prison and we are not responsible for you." You go to social services and say, "I want my children back." They say, "You can’t have your children back because the only accommodation you can get is for a single person because at the moment you are on your own." As a barrister, I remember sitting in a case where a child was freed for adoption without consent and this little woman sat at the back of the room and wept. She was totally ignored by the court. She was the mother. This is done in our name.
Q18 Chair: One of the purposes that prison serves in the public mind, and often that of quite a lot of politicians in different parties, is as a sign of society’s abhorrence either of a particularly serious offence or of a person’s persistence in offending when all sorts of other measures have failed to change what they do. How do you avoid a situation in which society seems to be giving a signal, if it largely abandons the use of custody in respect of women, that it is not strongly enough asserting what it is not going to stand for?
Baroness Corston: There are some women who should be in prison. Rosemary West should be in prison. That argument does not even need to be made. But there are two points about this. When people know who the women are who are in our prisons, they are deeply troubled. The BBC did a programme about Styal prison, where the journalist concerned was allowed to be in the prison for a fortnight and she was allowed to record what she saw. The BBC website was clogged afterwards with people sending distressed messages saying, "I didn’t realise that there were women like this locked up in our prisons."
Furthermore, an organisation called SmartJustice did some opinion polling round about the time of the publication of my report. It was broken down by gender, age and region. The questions were all the same but the responses were set out by region. The main question was, "Do you think women who have committed low level offences should be sent to prison or should they be sent to"-and then there was a description of a women’s community centre. The lowest-I emphasise "lowest"-approval rating for that statement in the United Kingdom was 81%, and it was over 90% in some regions. So, politicians would not be leading public opinion when they are talking about these women; they would be reflecting it. We should have the courage to do that. But, as I say, if I thought that sending a woman to prison for 28 days was a good thing, then I would argue for it, but I have seen for myself that it is utterly futile.
Q19 Seema Malhotra: These are questions continuing the theme of reducing the use of custody through different routes and particularly by improving community provision. The Corston report made a series of recommendations about women’s centres, both for women offenders and those who may be at risk of offending. I am interested to know if you can expand more to what extent you think reforms have been effective at reducing or preventing women entering the criminal justice system-so working with women at risk-and, also, better forms or more effective forms of punishment than perhaps being sentenced to custody?
Baroness Corston: To be sent to a women’s centre rather than to prison is much more difficult, which might sound a crazy thing to say. I was deeply moved by a woman whom I met, a 41-year-old, in a women’s centre. She had been in and out of prison since the age of 15 or had come to the attention of the authorities since the age of 15. She had had three children; one had been freed for adoption without consent, one was in care and she thought she would never get that child back, but she had a possibility of living with the third child independently. I said, "Why are you here?" She said, "Because the magistrate realised that prison had done nothing for me." I said, "What difference has it made?" She said, "It has been much more difficult than being in prison. When I was in prison there was always someone to blame: if my mother had protected me; if my stepdad hadn’t done that to me; if I hadn’t been coerced into drugs; if I hadn’t been poor; if I hadn’t been pimped; if I hadn’t had to become a sex worker; if I hadn’t got pregnant when I did and the way I did." Someone else was always to blame. She said, "Coming here, I have been forced to acknowledge what my role was in that happening to me." She said, "It has been much more difficult than being in prison and it has involved me." I asked her the question I often ask people in prison and it always surprises them. I said, "Do you now like yourself?" She smiled and she said, "For the first time in my adult life, yes, I do."
It is not an easy option. There is this notion that, somehow, if you get sent to a women’s centre you will sit around and chat and have coffee. It is not like that at all. You have to challenge your own demons and take responsibility for your life, because, otherwise, you are not a good neighbour or a good parent; you become the kind of person about whom your constituents write to you and who are a problem for your local authority. These women know that and they want to be like the rest of us.
If I may say something too in response to the point asked me by the Chairman about the attitude of the public to offences, I know of a woman who, in one year, shoplifted 99 times. You could say, "99 times shoplifting-she should be banged up." But, when you ask the question why she shoplifted 99 times, this was a woman whose partner was controlling, and his method of controlling was to give her no money. He was quite a wealthy person, somebody who may well lose child benefit, but the only money she had in her own name was child benefit, and when that was spent she stole to feed her children. Does that put a different complexion on the offence? I think it does.
Q20 Seema Malhotra: A lot of what you have told us today has been incredibly moving as well, with the stories of women who have found their way, not necessarily through their own fault, into the justice system. I want to expand on one thing. You have talked very strongly about the need for Ministers to be working together across Government so that you have some joined-up policy and joined-up working between civil servants. There also seems to be a point about how the justice system may be joined up with other areas of work, possibly with local government or charities, because the kind of women that you are talking about coming through referrals to women’s centres will be picked up elsewhere. Do you think that happens effectively enough, and does more need to be done to work with women more holistically?
Baroness Corston: It does happen in some places, sometimes in spite of institutional arrangements. In a way it is ad hoc. For example, in my city of Bristol there is now an organisation, which is accepted and recognised by the magistrates courts, where a designated woman member of staff services three magistrates courts. If a woman is due to appear before the magistrates for a petty crime, this organisation sends in a support worker to talk to that woman about her situation and then to mediate with the magistrates to say, "This is why this woman did what she did. We could do A, B, C, D and E with her and avoid her going to prison." The bench has been very supportive of that. There are things that happen, but, because it is so piecemeal and because it depends upon the imagination or the will or the acceptance of that kind of local organisation, then it does not happen. Because we have no benchmarking any more, as it is now called, or no visible strategy, these things pop up and they cannot continue because they do not have funding. It may be that you would want to add to that, Liz.
Liz Hogarth: I would just echo what Jean is saying. For me, where you see really good things happening locally with the joined-upness, it is dependent on how well established some of the women’s community projects are. They are not a homogenous group. Some have been out there. The Calderdale WomenCentre, over 20 years, grew up in its locality. It started being concerned about women’s health. It has now grown hugely. To keep going, it has to deal with something like 32 different funding streams to get sufficient money to keep going, but that indicates how well they are embedded in their local community. They certainly work extremely well with offenders as well. There is some very good emerging evidence from those women’s projects that it can work really well locally.
It is much harder for the newer projects-the ones we funded almost from scratch with the Corston Independent Funders’ Coalition. We asked an awful lot of them very quickly and it takes a long time to get established in your locality. If you have never worked with women offenders, it is a very big ask suddenly to turn to considering having specified activities in your centre that can work, and you are very dependent on probation working closely with you. It is a good work-in-progress, but there has been a slightly worrying shift with the funding for the centres now coming from NOMS. Quite rightly, NOMS has some responsibility for that. Their world is criminal justice. The pressure is on some of those women community projects to focus very much on the women offenders’ side. They do need more support, nationally and from the centre, to hook into the new local commissioners as well, to help them build on the very good work that is there.
Q21 Mr Llwyd: I am interested in what Baroness Corston said about this link person, if I can describe them in that way, between the courts and the defendant. Casting my mind back to when I started in the law, that is precisely what probation officers did before they were buried in casework. Surely, that should be a role for a probation officer, should it not?
Baroness Corston: Up to a point, yes. One of the successes of the organisation I am talking about in Bristol, Missing Link, is that this is the kind of work to which they have devoted themselves for 25 years, so they were kind of a natural choice. But I have to say I have no quarrel with probation officers at all, although I know that there are probation officers who have no idea that I have done a report and don’t know anything about it. We had some graphic evidence from one prison where, in the end, Liz arranged for a copy of my report to be put in the prison library so that, if the probation officers did not see it, at least the women in prison would have access. Sometimes, of course, probation officers do not mention to the court that a woman has children, because that should make a big difference. When you are sentencing, you should look at the needs and responsibilities of primary carers. "Is there going to be somebody to collect the children from school if I send this woman to prison now?" Nobody thinks about that. Probation officers now probably have enough to do with offenders, and sometimes these womenspecific services are ones to which women are more likely to relate.
Q22 Rehman Chishti: In relation to sentencing, Baroness Corston, previously you did not recommend a separate sentencing framework for women. Would you now consider this the right time to revisit that?
Baroness Corston: What I said at the time was that I was not going to suggest that there should be one, but I was not going to rule out the fact that there might need to be one. The reason why I said that was because there seemed to be so much institutional misunderstanding of the reality of most women’s lives and responsibility. I have just referred to what happened to me. As somebody who used to work as a lawyer, you have a client and you say, "You are likely to get a non-custodial sentence." So your client is perfectly happy, and all of a sudden you are sent to prison. If you are a woman, you are held in the cells longest of all because the men are always dealt with first. It is 10.30 at night before you actually get to prison, and you know that your child was outside school at 3.15 pm and there was nobody to meet that child. Can you imagine the state you would be in? The needs and responsibilities of primary carers are absolutely crucial and should be at the forefront of the minds of sentencers. It is difficult to have this argument with them of course because, for people like us, you are accused of interfering with the judiciary. I have to say that some judges now are absolutely superb. I can think of one judge in Bristol, His Honour Judge Horton, who has taken this strategy completely to heart and implements it when dealing with women offenders.
What made a very big difference during the last Government was that Vera Baird, who of course was a distinguished QC and did so much to change the law on battered women who kill before she came into Parliament, as a law officer, with that professional background, brought in a conditional caution for women. I had thought of recommending a conditional caution for women, but I thought nobody is going to accept that, so I didn’t. But she, as a law officer, brought it in. We had this pilot in two areas; I have forgotten which ones actually. I think one was the northeast. Women who had committed some kind of low level offence of the kind I have been discussing were told, "We will caution you on the condition that you attend a women’s centre for an assessment and that you follow through the course that is set out for you." That is an informal change of sentencing framework and has been very successful.
Q23 Rehman Chishti: Forgive me if I have missed the point, but, in terms of clarity, are you then saying that that system, which was introduced previously in the north, should now be spread out across the country?
Baroness Corston: There is a very good argument for that, yes. The argument for it is unanswerable.
Q24 Rehman Chishti: Secondly, to both of you, is there appropriate community-based provision for the management of women offenders who represent a higher risk of harm to the public?
Baroness Corston: It has been said, through Government, that 3.2% of the female prison population present a risk or a high risk to other people. Liz may well be able to talk to you about this in a minute because she is a person who worked in Holloway and had personal experience. There are some of those women who will probably never come out of prison, and, for them, the kind of prison regime that we currently have is entirely right. But, if it is 3.2% of women, we are talking about 140 women at any one time, so it is a small number of people who would need to be kept in secure circumstances. I can accept that, for them, there would be a price to pay in terms of family unity, but, in the interests of justice and a public acceptance of the seriousness of a crime, that is a price that we would have to pay.
Liz Hogarth: In terms of those women who do come out, who have been high risk and have gone into prison, it is good that-looking at things like approved premises-there has been a slight shift. Back when I was doing work in 2008, again we found it very hard because approved premises were for high risk offenders and it felt a bit like women did not fit that mould. They were not so much high risk, but they would come out of prison on licence or in terms of bail conditions. They had very high needs in terms of mental health and drugs, which could make them a risk in that sense. They needed slightly different provision, and it was good after 2008 that that was looked at and that medium risk women offenders could be considered for approved premises for women.
Having said that, though, there is still the issue that the small numbers of women can be seen as being problematic for us in terms of policy. Because, if you only have relatively few women needing approved premises, those premises are few and they are miles from home. An awful lot of women say they would rather stay in prison than go somewhere away from home. It sounds ironic in a way, but, when they have family contacts, it might be easier for those family contacts to get to a prison than to approved premises. It is good it is out there. Some very good and really inventive work is done with approved premises like Adelaide House, but they have to fight very hard to have their voices heard, because the norm is that it would be male high risk offenders and they are very different in terms of their needs.
Q25 Jeremy Corbyn: What form of commissioning arrangements do you see as the best way of dealing with women offenders and those at risk of reoffending, because you mentioned, for example, the issue of, potentially, a woman prisoner from Truro, where the nearest women’s prison would be Eastwood Park, which is well north of Bristol; I know the place. What would be your preferred option for commissioning arrangements?
Baroness Corston: My preferred option for women who have committed the kind of crimes to which we have referred-generally petty offences-would be that there should be local provision. There should be small units dispersed throughout the country, just for a small number of women. I do not accept the argument about cost because I have seen that it works in Scotland, and I don’t see why it can’t work here.
Q26 Jeremy Corbyn: Could you explain how it works in Scotland?
Baroness Corston: The Scottish Executive have funded the 218 Centre in Glasgow. It is a city centre premises. Women can self-refer or they can be referred by GPs, social workers, or schools, if girls start truanting. They have one floor that is secure, so women who are not able to leave the centre, who are there by order of the court, can be held. Staff from the centre go into the court on a regular basis whenever a woman is coming before the sheriff court. They are entirely accepted by the court as professionals, who can make judgments and recommendations about the most appropriate way to deal with a woman who is coming before the court. The court now, as I understand it, accepts absolutely the professionalism and integrity of the people who run that centre-and uses it routinely.
I don’t know whether the Scottish Executive have done an evaluation. Certainly, when I was there and I met the women, I found the whole thing very impressive and moving. It was not necessarily a cheap option in terms of setting it up, but the recent report by Dame Elish Angiolini-which points in almost exactly the same direction as the recommendations I made five years ago-has been easier to make in Scotland because of the experience they have had in places like the 218 Centre, which has been entirely beneficial. At the moment Scotland are leading the way.
Q27 Jeremy Corbyn: We had a brief visit to Denmark and Norway, mainly in respect of youth justice, but the interesting thing discussed with the prison authorities there was that there were timed opportunities to go to prison, often delayed sentences. That meant that the prisoners concerned did not lose their jobs and did not lose their homes. It seems one of the problems, particularly for women prisoners on short sentences, is what you described earlier, where they lose their job and their home, and life is a complete disaster as a result of an often quite minor misdemeanour. Would you want a change in the whole process of securing housing accommodation where possible so that women prisoners did not lose their homes on short sentences?
Baroness Corston: Absolutely. If you spend any time in a women’s prison, it is very difficult to have a conversation with women prisoners; they don’t really have much in the way of life skills. But when you ask them, "What is it that you want", we know that the holy grail of the Prison Service, for prisoners, is employability. For women, it is somewhere to live. I always ask the question, "What is your priority?" Time and again, I heard the heartbreaking lament, "I just want somewhere for me and my kids." In Scotland, it is, "I just want somewhere for me and my wains." They come out of prison and family reunification is impossible, because only 5% of the children of women prisoners are looked after in the family home by the father or by the male of the household. When a man goes to prison, there is usually a woman to keep the home fires burning. If a man wants to switch off from family, which he should not when he is in prison, it is possible. But it is not for women; their children are dispersed and reunification is frequently impossible.
Q28 Jeremy Corbyn: I have a very quick last question. Do you have any hard evidence of the rate of reoffending for people who go to women’s centres compared with prison?
Baroness Corston: What I would like to see from this strategy is an indication of what should be common indicators for all women centres for success, because at the moment they are all gathering evidence but they are all gathering different evidence that they thought about themselves, which makes comparison impossible. This is another thing that is crucial to the strategy. Set out what the common standards should be.
If I can give you one example, there is the ISIS centre in Gloucester. Ask them for the figures that they have about the women who have come through that centre. The reoffending rate is minuscule, but it would be impossible to make that comparison with other centres because they are all doing their own thing. Within this strategy, what would be useful-and we have been waiting for nearly a year or two years, I suppose-is an indication to those centres of the kind of evidence that they should gather in order to show their effectiveness, to Parliament and to the public, for the money that they spend. If that happens, we would realise that these people do extraordinary work in supporting these women and stopping their children spiralling into the kind of antisocial behaviour with which we are all too familiar.
Q29 Chair: We are very grateful for your evidence this morning. Can I just check with you whether you are being involved by Ministers currently, in the current Government, in taking any of these things forward?
Baroness Corston: No. Lord McNally asked to see me on Monday of last week, because last March I moved an amendment to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill in the House of Lords, calling for a women’s strategy, saying that, if we did have one and there was reporting to Parliament, we could judge the Government’s effectiveness. That has gone, and there has never been a strategy since the last general election. The vote there was tied 217 to 217, unfortunately, and, given the House of Lords procedure, it meant it was lost. The Minister said to me afterwards, "Don’t worry, we will have a strategy." That was last March. Last Monday he said to me, "There is going to be a strategy, Jean", but, with respect, I am now not holding my breath. What I find distressing is the time that has been wasted and the momentum that has been lost. I do have some confidence that Helen Grant, who is the new Minister and, who like me, practised as a family lawyer-
Chair: And a former member of this Committee.
Baroness Corston: Good. I am hoping that she will be given the support, which, as a Parliamentary Under-Secretary, she is going to need from her Secretary of State to put together, publish and implement a strategy, because, if that happens, then women who work in these centres all over the country and, of course, the Independent Funders’ Coalition, will have an idea where the Government want them to go.
Chair: Thank you very much indeed. We have to go into private session, although there are some people who are going to join us in that session who I think are already in the public seats. So thank you very much for your evidence this morning.
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: A, B, C, D1 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.
D: I am D from Women in Prison.
C: I am C, 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.
B: My name is B. I am coming here from Revolving Doors and I have been in prison three times.
A: I am A. 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? A 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?
C: 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"?
B: With me, it would have been housing-then I wouldn’t have moved in with drug dealers-and counselling.
C: Counselling and mentoring for me.
Q33 Chair: Somebody said mentoring.
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?
A: 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.
B: 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.
B: 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?
B: Yes. That has really, really helped me a lot.
Q37 Mr Buckland: Because they have walked in your shoes, have they not?
B: Definitely. That is what has helped me turn things around, definitely.
C: 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: C, 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.
C: 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 B 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: A, 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?
A: 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.
A: 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 residential hostel. 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 didn’t get 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.
A: 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: D, you are not long from release, are you? What was your experience like?
D: 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.
D: 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?
D: 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?
D: 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?
D: 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?
D: 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.
D: 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?
C: 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: A, 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?
A: 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: A, you are on a licence, are you not?
A: I am a life licence, yes.
Q52 Mr Buckland: So you can be recalled-
A: At any time.
Mr Buckland: That’s right.
C: 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 A says, it is much easier sometimes to reoffend.
Q53 Rehman Chishti: D and C, 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?
D: Yes; I was given treatment in the prison, and then when I came out my GP sent me to counselling.
C: But, D, I guess when you say "treatment", you mean medication.
D: Medication, yes.
C: No counselling.
D: No counselling, no.
C: 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.
C: 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.
B: 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 C’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: A, you were going to say something on this.
A: 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, 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?
B: 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?
C: 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.
B: Men tend not to be as supportive to women. Women tend to kind of visit men more than men visit women.
A: 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?
C: 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?
C: Yes, absolutely.
B: 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.
B: 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?
B: 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.
C: You could in Bronzefield if you were an enhanced prisoner.
Q62 Jeremy Corbyn: A, what about you?
A: I don’t know what to say.
Q63 Steve Brine: What did you do all day for 18 years?
A: 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?
A: 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?
B: 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?
B: 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.
D: 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.
C: 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.
A: 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 was lacking for me. There are quite a few other girls with life sentences that are lacking support in the rehabilitation process-the length of time to be rehabilitated and access to suitable programs for rehabilitation. 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.
C: 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?
B: 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.
D: 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?
Q73 Chair: Would you rather have been on all-women programmes or were you happy with them as mixed?
B: I didn’t mind. I didn’t mind being with the men.
C: 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
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