Prisons are letting women down

Labour must break the cycle of poverty, isolation and reoffending that too often characterises the lives of women that leave prison, argues Chris Elmore MP

The women’s prison population in England and Wales has doubled in the past 20 years. As a result, there are now close to 7,000 women reentering society each year. Most will not have a home to go to, most will not find employment and most will reoffend.

It is an epidemic and homelessness is at the crux. On release, six in 10 women do not have a home to go to. With no place of their own, some are turned down by friends and family who avoid them due to their conviction. With sparse temporary accommodation available to local authorities, women end up on the streets. It is an issue in itself which also lends to further difficulties.

Without an address – permanent or temporary – safe and secure employment is near impossible. Women leaving prison already encounter difficulties in finding work owing to the legal requirement to declare convictions if asked by employers.

As a result, fewer than one in 10 women released from a prison sentence of under 12 months manage to secure a ‘positive employment outcome’ within a year. This is three times worse than the equivalent figure for men.

For those that struggle to find work, and often for those who are successful in their search, social security can be difficult to come by. Women leaving prison are woefully neglected of advice and support.

The subsequent financial difficulties inevitably takes its toll on family life. Two-thirds of women in prison have dependent children – when they leave there is often sparse support available to mothers, who through a lack of employment and advice, live in poverty.

Without a home, without income and without family, the path to reconviction is clear. 45 per cent of women are reconvicted within one year of leaving prison. Many women will reoffend to fund a life outside of prison, though many will do so aware that life can be easier inside.

To address the situation, we need to work towards every woman leaving prison has somewhere to live. One in three women in prison lose their homes and many have nowhere temporary to stay as they adjust back into society. We need to ensure supported housing is available for those that have nowhere else to turn. Some prisons are reported to have given tents and sleeping bags to those leaving – it is an indictment of the lack of supports that leaves women turning to the streets.

Prison staff want to help, but cutbacks delivered by the government have left them unable to. Funding for career and housing advice has been neglected, leaving prisons unable to best prepare women for life after prison. The resulting impact on mental health creates further problems. A majority of women in prison now suffer from some form of mental health issue.

All of the above difficulties can be exacerbated further by women being relocated away from their families. There are only twelve women’s prisons across England and Scotland, and none at all in either Wales or Northern Ireland. For Welsh women the closest facility is in Gloucestershire. The result of custody far from family can be further social isolation for women upon release, and a harmful effect on the welfare of children.

Upon release, women can face further difficulties when a lack of local provision means that they again are located far from their family. For some women, living in approved properties is a condition of release on licence. Only six of which properties exist in the United Kingdom – none of which are in Wales, and there are even none in London.

The number of women leaving prison is increasing, and although a Labour government should aim to reduce the prison population, this cannot be our only focus. We must pay attention to the women who leave prison, and in particular the poverty, isolation and reoffending that often follows. Women need better support while in prison, and they need better support once they have left prison. Only then can Labour have a policy on justice that stays true to our party’s values.

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Chris Elmore is member of parliament for Ogmore. He tweets at @CPJElmore

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