Clare Jones, Joint Chief Executive, WomenCentre, Calderdale and Kirklees and Chair of Women’s Centre Forum
Rokaiya Khan, Chief Executive, Together Women, Yorkshire and Humberside
Pip Tibbetts, Partnerships Manager, Bradford, West Yorkshire Probation Area  Sister Lynda Dearlove, Director, Women at the Well, King’s Cross, London
Clive Chatterton. Governing Governor, HMP Prison and YOI Styal.
And Gemma, Soraya and Dorothy, who attend the centres.

Lord Corbett opened the meeting, with special thanks to Baroness Gould and the Women’s National Commission with whom the meeting had been organised. He was delighted that Baroness Corston could join the meeting, and extended a particular welcome to all new MPs and peers for this first meeting of the new Parliament. He mentioned the report of the group’s work during the last session, Too Many Prisoners, which was sent to all those who had expressed an interest.  He welcomed early indications of the new Government’s thinking about spending on prisons – whatever the reason.   He then went on to welcome the evening’s speakers, starting with Clare Jones, joint chief executive of WomenCentre, Halifax, and Chair of the Women’s Centres Forum, who would set the scene for the meeting.

Clare Jones explained that the Women’s Centres Forum was the new umbrella body for the 38 women’s community and diversion projects now operating across England and Wales. This gave her a good insight into what was going on across so many areas, to provide:

...the holistic and women-centred community-based approaches, offering real alternatives to custody and opportunities for women. You will hear more about the situations in the lives of some of these women that result in their offending in the first place, and how they get pulled into a cycle that is impossible to get out of without some real support, and that’s what our projects are there to provide.

It is fantastic to have Baroness Corston here, because it was from the recommendations in her report that we have been able to make the case for monies to be made available for our projects to be run, to be able to make differences to people’s lives. The results show the impact this work is having. The problem for us is that funding is only available until March 2011. We are working with 2,000 very vulnerable women, enabling them to keep out of the criminal justice system and to make significant differences in their lives. Our main concern is that we will go back to square one by the next financial year, unless we have commitments that there will be some sustainability.

My day job is as joint chief executive of WomenCentre, formerly known as Calderdale Women’s Centre but now working with Kirklees as well. We offer a one stop shop. Every project works slightly differently, but the big similarity is that we trust the value of the women themselves, and build up a trusting relationship with each individual. We believe in those women, and we understand the context of those women’s lives. Many have had childhoods that have been full of abuse and neglect, and for many their day to day lives include substance misuse, domestic violence, mental health issues, housing issues, debt, finance issues, homelessness: a whole range of issues that really need specific help to help people make differences.

I’m now going to hand over to Clive Chatterton, Governor of Styal Prison, who is going to talk about his experience of working in the women’s estate.

Clive Chatterton thanked the group for the opportunity to speak. He was really grateful, because he felt quite strongly about this issue.  He continued:

I joined the Prison Service thirty five years ago, and over that time I have served in fourteen male establishments – all kind of establishments, top security, Victorian locals, remand homes, juvenile establishments, and I got to the point after all those years coming through the ranks that I thought I’d seen most things. But I got more than a slight shock last July when I was given the opportunity to go and run Styal, the third prison that I’d governed. When I got there I was quite shocked by what I found. So much so that the first couple of months while I was there, driving home past the airport, I was thinking ‘Am I up for this? Can I handle it? What’s this about?’ because I’d never seen anything like it in my life. I asked myself: was I going soft?

For all those years, being so close to the criminal justice system, I was unsighted to the issues in women’s establishments. And it struck me that if I was unsighted, if I hadn’t been exposed to these things, there must be lots of my colleagues in other criminal justice agencies who were also unsighted. The Baroness in her report uses the phrase that the statistics about female offenders are ‘shocking’, and that has stuck with me since I read it. I’m not attempting to be a judge and jury. But one of the things that troubled me on those drives home in the early months was the level of self harm. I’d never experienced anything like it, and I know my colleagues in male prisons hadn’t. In a male prison almost twice the size, you’d probably have, on a daily basis, about half a dozen prisoners on ACCT procedures – at risk of self harm. At Styal there are about fifty a day, on special observation for self harm.

The second thing that struck me was the level of mental health issues. The place generally runs on its medications. A lot of the ladies are substance abusers and anything from 40-60% can be on methadone maintenance programmes. I’ve never seen such a concentration of damaged fragile people. Trained prison officers, dedicated committed professionals who do a fantastic job, are being asked to look after people who have clearly got severe mental health issues, and a large percentage of the population have got other social care needs. We are trying to do something that we’re very good at, but it’s not what we were trained for.

The other thing that struck me was the use of short sentences: there are hundreds. Yesterday I got the stats to prepare for this meeting. 107 ladies are on remand: we can make an educated guess that probably 50% are not going to receive a custodial sentence. 119 prisoners are doing 12 months or less: 72 of them six months or less. I’ve done a presentation to the North West Criminal Justice Boards, and one of the slides I used was from a two month period last year. During October and November at Styal we received 34 ladies doing eight days or less. Eight of those were sentenced to one day. One lady was discharged before she slept for the night. She was a fine defaulter. Quite frankly I find that startling. I’m not judge and jury and I’m not saying I want to be. I would like to inform the discussion. If I am asked in my professional capacity about short sentences – the PGA has made a statement on short sentences, but these are my own views - when I see a young lady that I saw last year, with a ligature which left her unconscious, and if we hadn’t rescued her she would have died, almost every part of her body was covered with slashes, she then set fire to herself, and received burns that meant that again she almost died, and when she had recovered from that she drank disinfectant…. And I am asked: do short sentences work? I remain to be convinced by that.

Clare Jones thanked Clive Chatterton and introduced the next speaker, Rokaiya Khan, Chief Executive, Together Women, Yorkshire and Humberside.

Rokaiya Khan began by explaining that the Together Women Programme (TWP) was one of the two pilot demonstration projects following Baroness Corston’s recommendations. She continued:

We set up one stop shop centres across Yorkshire and Humberside providing a range of support structures for women at every stage of the criminal justice pathway. We also provided services for women at risk of offending, from first time offences right through to women being released from prison. The pilot demonstration project ran for just under three years, and the model was to work with a range of existing voluntary sector organisations and services that provide healthcare, benefits advice, access to education and employment, bringing those services together within a gender specific centre.  This was modelled around breaking the barriers of access to services for women offenders, so we provided childcare, and some of the therapeutic elements that the women required, as well as dealing with some of the challenges and addressing their offending behaviour.

We are awaiting the results of an independent evaluation but the indications are that in any one year we have provided support for 1500 women. For us, the challenge was around sustainability. How could we mainstream our services within local commissioning? We have been fairly successful in attracting gender specific commissioning, from local authorities, the police and the probation service, to provide a range of different interventions. In Bradford we run intensive alternative to custody orders. That’s a particular pathway of addressing intensive support for women on the cusp of custody. The compliance rate for women on these orders is nearing 90%. We’ve done lots of work with sentencers because it’s about providing a robust package, so that they can have some faith that it’s not a soft option, and that women are going to need to address the root causes of their offending.

We did a cost benefit analysis recently around what it costs to support a woman in a community based intervention like ours.  To provide intensive support for a woman for  up to six months costs under £1,000.  And you’ll know that keeping a woman in custody for a year costs in the region of £40,000. So it absolutely makes sense to invest in community services like ours.

One of the things I’m particularly proud of is the ground-breaking work we’ve done with West Yorkshire Probation, who have taken bold decisions about investing in a community service like ours.

I’d like to introduce you to Pip Tibbetts, Partnerships Manager, Bradford Probation, who’s going to tell you more.

Pip Tibbetts:

After TWP came to our area, we decided that we wanted to do  things differently with women. Every district now has a link manager for women offenders whose responsibility it is to try to educate magistrates to reduce short sentences, custody etc. Every offender management team, the group of people supervising the 3,500 offenders we are working with in Bradford at any time, has a semi specialist – that’s somebody who’s learning how to work with women better, learning about different agencies who provide gender specific services, and half of their case loads are women.

Then last year we decided we wanted to take it one step further, and to develop a model of working with the most complex and hard to reach women on our case load, with Women’s Centre, Calderdale and Kirklees and TWP involved. So we are developing an integrated women offenders management model, for want of a better phrase, and what that means is that we are locating three members of our staff in Bradford, two in Leeds, and one in the WomenCentre in Calderdale and two in Kirklees, whose entire case load is made up of women.  So half of all women are now supervised within a one stop shop centre. The sentence plan, which is part of a community order, is jointly decided with the women, with a women’s centre key worker and with the offender manager, and delivered together.

So probation is able to do the bit it does best, and the women’s centres are able to deliver what they do best – and that is intensive support.  In terms of how we risk assess, if the woman is deemed low risk that means they get a limited package of support from probation, but that’s most of the women we supervise. We wanted to do more for those women, so that they don’t become high risk, and so that they don’t get sent to prison. This model is offering that opportunity. We’ve got an 87% completion rate for community orders that are supervised at these one stop shops, which is an early indication that this works.  And 88% of all appointments that are offered to women at these one stop shops are kept.  For women who are chaotic, who have complex interconnected needs, this is an amazing achievement. And I think this is testament to how you can work in partnership to deliver better services for women.

I am joined today by Gemma, a client attending TWP in Leeds, who will share with you some of her experiences.

Gemma began:

I had a really abusive upbringing and childhood. Even though I did well at school, and I haven’t been to prison, I must have been lost. I met someone and it wasn’t a healthy relationship at all. If it wasn’t for TWP I probably wouldn’t have made the right relationships. I wouldn’t have known how to come across, and meet people easily. I didn’t like having to go down to the probation to see a probation worker, it felt daunting, and also it was full of lads and people I didn’t want to get involved with. It put me off track when I wanted to go in the right direction, for the kids’ sakes. Now I’ve been to TWP I feel like I’ve benefitted loads from it, and I feel like one day I’ll be able to volunteer, and move on.’

Clare Jones thanked Gemma and then introduced Soraya, from the Women’s Turnaround Project in Wales.

Soraya began:

I’m 31 years of age.   I’ve been in and out of gaol from the age of 19, all short sentences. I never touched drugs at the time. My first experience of drugs was in gaol and I came out with a heroin habit.  I was ashamed to tell my family – I came from a good background, and I didn’t want to disappoint them. My pattern then was shop lifting, to fund my habit. I turned to heroin, crack, alcohol. When I was in gaol last year on my last sentence, I saw a leaflet about the Women’s Turnaround Project. I picked it up and when I came out I asked my probation officer to refer me. She said you’ve got to do self referral, so I did. I was with them in October. By November they’d got me on a methadone script. From December I was clean of everything. I’m now off my methadone and now my plan is to go to college and give something back. I’ve got first hand experience, so I can understand where other people are coming from. If I can help one person like Women’s Turnaround has helped me it’s a big achievement in my life.  I know that with help from Women’s Turnaround and with the passion in my heart I might one day be the next Baroness up here. (Applause)

Clare Jones thanked Soraya and introduced the next speaker Sister Linda Dearlove, Director of Women at the Well in King’s Cross.

Sister Lynda Dearlove said that she was not going to concentrate on the work of providing one stop shop support and services for women involved in street based prostitution, but rather

...on some of the barriers  that seem to be inbuilt within the criminal justice system that prevent us from providing the best service we could to those women.   There are some particular aspects of the law that do that, for example the overuse of ASBOs to police prostitution, which isn’t what they were intended to do. The way in which they are being used, which is hugely geographical, actually prevents the intention of the ASBO which is about rehabilitation and reform. If the ASBO itself prevents the women from accessing the support services they need in order to address the offending behaviour then by definition those women are unable to do what needs to be done. And so those women frequently breach their ASBOs and they end up in prison.

Once they are in prison, with the disruption to their lives, they lose their benefits, their accommodation, and quite often their methadone script or whatever else they were having to enable them deal with their substance misuse. And when they come back out again we quite often find we are back to square one. But sometimes we are behind that. We paid for a hotel for someone for thirty weeks, to keep them off the streets, to get their benefits sorted and to get them housed. The particular issue there was that the local authority was saying ‘we intend to extend the ASBO’. They were taking over as judge and jury from the magistrates because they decided that it was a foregone conclusion.  And so they were not putting her into the accommodation that should have been available. We had to negotiate with another borough. In London it’s a particular issue, because each borough is its own local authority. All of your services are tied to that local connection. So by introducing large geographical area ASBOs we are preventing women from accessing the services they need.

Another aspect is that conditional cautioning is frequently not being used as we would like to see it. We are in a situation now in Kings Cross where women are not being cautioned at all. The first thing that happens is that they have been seen and they are being summonsed to court to answer a charge of prostitution. But many say they weren’t working at the time. It’s very hard to prove, if the incident happened a week or ten days ago.  Many of us don’t know what we were doing yesterday. We are managing to challenge that very strongly with a very good firm of criminal solicitors that we use.  But those women may be getting back into the criminal justice system and back into prison for things that aren’t reasonable.
Yet another aspect that’s hugely important is that women are quite often issued with a tagging order. The taggers arrive and they don’t have any photographic ID. So because they don’t have a passport, or a driving license, or quite often they don’t know where a lot of their life is let alone their passport or driving licence even if they had one, they are then not tagged. As a result of not being tagged they are then recalled, and they will be sent to prison.

Those things are innate within the system. We manage when we know about it to get solicitors involved and we challenge it. But if those are the things that are recalling women to prison, how can we say that the criminal justice system in working?

Sister Lynda Dearlove then introduced the next speaker, Dorothy.

Dorothy began:

I’ve lived in the Kings Cross area for the last two or three years. I’ve not long come out of prison. I was in there for breaching my license due to the postal strike. I didn’t get my appointments. I didn’t get a chance to appeal because you don’t go back to court for a breach, you go straight to prison. I’d just got a hostel place, I’d just been put on a script, I’d got all my benefits sorted out, and being recalled meant that all this went to pot. Everything stopped. I did my 28 days, and on my release I got my discharge grant of £47 which was supposed to last me till my next benefit. I was also told to approach the housing office in the borough where I live. I went to the housing office and was told they couldn’t help me because I wasn’t a priority. I wasn’t vulnerable. Luckily enough I knew the ladies at the Women at the Well which is just round the corner. So I went round there and Lynda asked if she could come round with me to housing again. So basically she accompanied me and dealt with the staff and got me into a hostel where I’m living now. They helped me get all my stuff sorted back out again. I’m now on a college course. I go to the centre every day and use their facilities. I get help with my bus fares to go to college, and I get food every day. There’s acupuncture there, there’s cookery courses, there’s lots of things you can do to get back on the right path.

Lord Corbett thanked all the speakers warmly for their contributions and welcomed questions and comments. He went on to note that Baroness Corston had set up an all party group on women in the penal system, a lobbying and campaigning body.

Baroness Corston said she was glad to be there. It felt as though her report had dropped a little stone into a big pond, and the speakers had been making those ripples spread. The message was simple, though hard to get across to some in prison and probation: women and men were different but equal and to treat both the same did not guarantee equality of outcome.  She thought one reason her report had engaged people was that it said what could be done and how it could work. However sentencers had to have a knowledge of, and confidence in, these disposals in their areas. They should be required to visit them. In Glasgow, for example, the centres were routinely used as court disposals. She too would like to see the conditional caution pilot spread, and acknowledged the debt to Vera Baird and Maria Eagle, who were responsible not only for implementing a lot of the agenda but also for getting criminal justice women’s units located in the MoJ with officials from all departments working together.

She was particularly pleased to have heard a speaker from the Turnaround Project. When she started her report she had spoken to the person responsible for the prisons building programme, and had been told the next project was a new women’s prison in Wales. She argued that this was unnecessary and was delighted to report that the decision had been made to fund the Turnaround project instead, which had done so much to give women self confidence, self esteem, and to help them to like themselves. Once you had those three things, the rest was relatively easy.

On Women’s Hour about 18 months ago, she had happened to hear a feature about two women who had been told they would have to attend a women’s centre for an assessment, instead of going to prison. They were asked questions such as: Do you like yourself? What would you like to be? What would make your children proud of you?  When asked what they thought of having to do this, they said they had thought it was rubbish. But when Jenni Murray asked what had become of the lists, one said it was on her bedroom wall and the other said it was on her fridge, and both said their children were proud of them.

This was the basis of so much work that could be done in prisons. Members of the Corston Independent Funders Coalition were helping to set up these 38 centres throughout the estate. It was important that the new government did not use the state of the economy as an excuse for cutting this programme. As had been shown, it saved money.