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Bringing women in from the margins

22 June 2015

Last week we announced a £48.5 million investment in projects that support women and girls facing a range of complex issues, including domestic abuse and mental ill health. Today we hear from Jenny Earle of the Prison Reform Trust, about the support so many vulnerable women need in order to take control of their lives.  

The Big Lottery Fund initiative to channel resources into women’s support services is timely and could make a big difference to women’s lives, including the lives of women in contact with the criminal justice system.

Too many women are sent to prison every year for minor non-violent offences (a Prison-reform-blogthird for shoplifting), for short periods, often leaving children behind. Very few women in prison have committed serious or violent crimes, indeed most of them have been victims of more serious crimes than the ones of which they are accused. Many a prison officer has said to me “a lot of these women shouldn’t be here”. They know as well as I do that most of the solutions to women’s offending lie outside prison walls in access to mental health and drug and alcohol treatment services, protection from domestic violence and coercive relationships, affordable housing, better job opportunities and childcare support.

Employment outcomes for women following short prison sentences are three times worse than for men, and many are trapped in a spiral of debt. The number of women in prison doubled between 1995 and 2010, and their profile – including their needs and the drivers to their offending – is strikingly different from men’s. The devastating impacts of incarceration are manifest not only in the high levels of mental illness and self-harm among women but also in the intergenerational effects on their children. As one woman who still bore the scars said to me “any prison sentence for a mum can be a life sentence for her kids”.

A good start in reducing women’s imprisonment has been made with local ‘women’s pathfinders’ that involve joined-up working between police, courts and women’s services to divert women from offending. The report Transforming Lives published recently by Prison Reform Trust with the Soroptimists, highlighted inspiring examples of services run by, with and for women – including one-stop shops, mobile and pop-up centres and outreach services – but found that uneven and unstable funding is hampering their effectiveness. Women’s community centres are often run on the smell of an oily rag, despite mounting evidence of their effectiveness in supporting women who have been failed by other services.

This new Lottery funding could help transform women’s justice by investing in the voluntary organisations and services that will help keep women out of trouble and offer them and their families a brighter future.

To find out more about the Prison Reform Trust visit www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk

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