Too many women, many of whom are mothers, are sent to prison every year to serve short sentences for non-violent crimes, often for a first offence, a new Prison Reform Trust (PRT) briefing reveals.

The briefing marks the launch of a drive by the Prison Reform Trust,  supported by a £1.2 million grant from the Big Lottery Fund, to reduce the number of women who are sent to prison for minor non-violent offences.

Last Thursday (23 July) the Justice Minister Caroline Dinenage reaffirmed the government’s commitment to reducing the number of women in prison in its response to the cross-party Justice Committee’s report and recommendations on women offenders.

Two thirds of women sent to prison are mums and over 17,000 children are separated from their mothers by imprisonment every year. Imprisonment has a devastating impact on the life chances of these children, who as a result are more likely to experience homelessness, disruption to their family and home lives, problems at school and local authority care. Women released from custody are more likely to reoffend, and reoffend quicker, than women serving community sentences.

One woman former offender with an eight year old boy said:

“Once you come to prison you’ve got that hanging over you for the rest of your life… it’s like a stigma. It follows you around. It’s hard to get a job, a bank account when you can’t prove the last 3 years of your history…little things like that. Having a criminal record is always going to affect your life.”

The three-year UK-wide programme Transforming lives: Reducing women’s imprisonment will promote more effective, early intervention and non-custodial responses to women in trouble, working with national and local governments, statutory agencies, and voluntary and community sector organisations in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The new programme will also have a base with Families Outside in Edinburgh, an independent charity working to support prisoners’ families.

The briefing reveals that:

  • Eight in ten (81%) women entering prison under an immediate custodial sentence had committed non-violent offences.
  • Theft and handling offences are the biggest single driver to custody for women.
  • Women serving custodial sentences are twice as likely as men (21% v 10%) to have no previous convictions or cautions.
  • More than half (53%) of women in prison report having experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse as a child, compared to 27% of men
  • Women in prison are more than three times as likely to be identified as suffering from depression as women in the general population (65% v 19%).
  • In 2014, women accounted for 26% of all self-harm incidents in prison in England and Wales despite representing only 5% of the prison population.
  • Fewer than one in ten women leave custody with a job to go to, most face mounting debt and struggle to find safe housing.

PRT will identify and encourage the spread of good practice in working with women in contact with the criminal justice system, gathering and disseminating evidence to underpin innovation, and ensuring that the voices of often-marginalised women are heard in the corridors of power. PRT’s work with the Soroptimists, reflected in the report Transforming Lives, provides a solid foundation for this three year programme.

Police diversion initiatives and cost-effective community sentences enable women to take control of their lives, care for their children and address the causes of their offending. Profiling the positive outcomes of these approaches will help to spread good practice and reduce the unnecessary and expensive use of remand and short custodial sentences.

There are opportunities to accelerate the pace of policy and practice change. Already in Scotland the decision to build a new women’s prison has been reversed in favour of small custodial units and community-based provision.

In England and Wales, the new duty on the Secretary of State for Justice (in section 10 Offender Rehabilitation Act 2014) to identify and address the specific needs of women offenders should deliver better outcomes for women. In Northern Ireland a new step-down facility is being provided for women leaving prison.

Jenny Earle, director of the PRT’s programme to reduce women’s imprisonment, said

“I am looking forward to working with partners across the UK to accelerate progress in reforming women’s justice and reducing reliance on prison. We need to listen to women with experience of the justice system and take seriously the mounting evidence that short periods of imprisonment are particularly destructive for women and the families who rely on them.”

Juliet Lyon, Director of the Prison Reform Trust, said:

“Most of the solutions to women’s offending lie outside prison walls in treatment for addictions and mental health problems, protection from domestic violence, safer housing, debt management, education, skills development and employment. The support of the Big Lottery Fund will enable us to lead a concerted drive to reduce the wasteful imprisonment of women and limit the devastating impact it has on the lives of their children and families.”

Professor Nancy Loucks, Chief Executive of Families Outside, said:

“The impact on children when a family member goes to prison is significant and enduring, particularly when a mum goes to prison. Their housing may be at risk, their schooling may suffer, their care arrangements may mean they’re separated from siblings and other family.  Up to a third develop serious mental health issues, and they are at higher risk of offending themselves in later life.”

Dawn Austwick, Chief Executive of the Big Lottery Fund, said:

“We are pleased to support the Prison Reform Trust to deliver this important work, looking at some complex and challenging social issues around reducing the number of women in prison. This UK-wide project builds on a strong body of independent evidence, looking at effective interventions to help women at risk of offending address underlying issues and improve their lives.”

 You can download the briefing by clicking this link

Selected media coverage

Independent (Editorial)


BBC Radio 4 Woman's Hour