Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Women in prison: Corston report

I attended a meeting organised by Women in Prison which had special guest speaker Jean Corston. The chair of the meeting was Inquest Co-Director, Deborah Coles, who gave an initial overview of the history of the report. Organisations like Inquest and Women in Prison argued for a public inquiry into the 6 deaths of women prisoners in Styal prison (one of them being Pauline Campbell's daughter, Sarah).

Instead, then Home Secretary Charles Clarke ordered a review of the treatment of women in the criminal justice system. I attended as I have experience of working with women (and men) in the Special Hospitals regime and there are parallels between the two. So I was interested in the discussion of this meeting and I am also involved in Women in Prison. Corston's recommendations include a commitment within six months to a 10 year programme to replace existing women’s prisons with small local custodial units. An end to routine strip searching in women’s prisons.

Improved sanitation conditions as called for by the Chief Inspector of Prisons. Women in Prison have called for a radical rethink towards imprisoning women. Only last week 2 more women committed suicide bringing the number to 4 which exceeds last year's figure. There are around 4,500 women in prison contrast that number 12 twelve years ago when the figure was 1,800. There has been an increase of 196% while for men the increase has been 52%.

The average sentence for a woman prisoner is 42 days...! Long enough for her to lose her kids and home. Many of the women in prison have mental health problems. Women make up 6% of the prison population yet they account for more than half of incidents of self-harm.

The prison system is a dumping ground for vulnerable and powerless people. Lets not forget as well a high number of women are in prison on remand and a third are released. What was also highlighted was a high proportion of women in the prison system have been sexually abused in childhood (a similar parallel is the "special" hospital regime where, at its height during the 1990s, around 85% of the women incarcerated had been sexually abused in childhood). So how does the state deal with this? They chuck damaged people with low-esteem, no confidence, who feel worthless into the human dustbin known as prison! Indeed condemning is far easier than understanding.

Also the huge distances people travel to visit their loved ones. Corston gave an example of a woman who committed suicide after she was told she was moving to Durham from Holloway. Her partner and family lived in that geographical area. The idea of moving and not being able to see her partner and family was too much for this young woman. Another statistic for New Labour. Corston was a passionate and powerful speaker and I believe she has women prisoners best interests at heart.

She spoke of the different sentencing patterns for women and her belief that the underlying view that those who don't conform are treated more harshly. Ironically, in her report, she stops short of including any recommendation on sentencing policy. Again, she discusses the high number of women in prison due to drug offences and the need for better treatment and rehab facilities but a radical rethink would, surely, be legalising the drugs industry. Pauline Campbell's contribution highlighted the issue of culpability. Where does the buck stop with deaths in prison?

Deaths in prison and police custody which New Labour want left out of the Corporate Manslaughter Bill (the Lords voted to keep in) and what she considers a "shameful indictment which reflects badly on this government". What is the point if there's no responsibility, transparency or accountability, more people will go on dying in dire surroundings. There was discussion of having supportive environments for women when they leave prisons such as housing co-operatives and therapeutic enviroments which cost a fraction in comparison to the figure it costs to keep a woman in prison.

Corston talked of "good practices" for gender specific policies. Corston spoke of shocking comments made by prison officers who seem to routinely tell women and men prisoners who are doing a long stretch that they should forget about their children, forget about the outside world and just to keep your their head down!! Words utterly fail me.

The other issue that was raised was the appalling assumption that a prison can seen as a "place of safety". Corston admits that there are women with mental health problems locked up as magistrates, for example, believe a prison is the best place for them and "will do them good". How on earth can a prison be considered a place of safety and what kind of positive outcome be achieved?

A police cell, under section 136 of the current Mental Health Act is also considered a "place of safety" and campaigners are arguing that there should be a restriction of the use of police cells as a "place of safety".. Restriction?

They should just stop using them full stop. Regarding Corston's report and whether New labour will accept these recommendations is open to debate and Baroness Scotland will be writing on behalf of the government in the next 3 months. There will hopefully be debates both in Parliament and the Lords within the coming months.

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