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Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Ken Clarke should keep women out of jail

Ken Clarke should keep women out of jail

By Mary Riddell, Politics, Last updated: June 6th, 2011

Mary Riddell is a columnist and a political interviewer for the Daily Telegraph. She writes on topics ranging from family to foreign policy and is particularly interested in criminal justice. Her focus is what is going on, for better or for worse, in the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Once, long ago, I visited Holloway women’s prison with the Home Secretary of the day. There we saw a wasteland of humanity whose imprint did not fade. I have not forgotten the slashed arms, the expressions of bewilderment and the mothers caring for infants from whom they would soon be parted, perhaps for good. There was nothing synthetic about the despair we witnessed.

The governor of the time spoke of frustrated suicide attempts, saying his prison officers cut down several women a day. No doubt Holloway has improved in the meantime. I doubt, however, if its inmates look much different. Nor did the Home Secretary whom I accompanied, or his successors, move to change the system. That is why today’s report by the Independent Women’s Justice Taskforce is so welcome.

The taskforce, set up by the Prison Reform Trust and comprising a panel including magistrates, economists and senior police officers calls on the Government to shut women’s prisons and move their inmates to intensive community programmes, which have proved cheaper, more effective and more humane. Those who argue that women should not be singled out should look at how they have become the victims of a discrimination that has seen the number of those jailed over the last 15 years rise from 1800 to 400; an increase of 114 per cent.

Most serve short sentences for non-violent crime, but their tariff does not end on release. Many, including victims of domestic abuse, are still in the grip of the drink or drugs problems linked to their offences; many are mentally ill. The mothers among them will see their own difficult or chaotic lives revisited on the next generation. Of the 17,700 children of women in prison, only five per cent remain in their own homes while their mothers are in custody.

Any offender who poses a danger to the community, or who has committed a truly heinous crime, must be appropriately contained or punished, regardless of gender. But the number of such women is tiny compared with the majority who, with their children, are the chief victims of their offences.

It makes no sense for the taxpayer to spend £56,415 a year on locking someone away when the only return on that investment is broken families and reoffending, with all the attendant private heartache and public cost.

Long after I visited Holloway, I went to see an intensive community programme and met women of all ages whose lives had been turned around at a fraction of the cost of a prison place. That established scheme had no idea where its next tranche of funding would come from. For all I know it has been forced to retrench or close.

That grievous waste was remedied to some small degree when the Ministry of Justice announced £3.2 million of funding to allow centres for female offenders to stay open until 2012. Ken Clarke needs to do better than that and, with luck, he will rise to the challenge. He has welcomed today’s report. He should act on it.

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