TWO reports by cross-party groups of MPs have accused the Government of going against its own Female Offender Strategy by preparing to hold more women in prison.
The Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which scrutinises how taxpayers’ money is spent, said it was clear that the strategy, which calls for a reduction in the number of women in prison, “has been a relatively low priority for the Ministry of Justice”. It contrasted the £200 million which ministers have committed to build 500 extra prison places for women in England with only £9.5 million spent by the Government over a four-year period on community services aimed at keeping women out of prison.
And the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Women in the Penal System (APPG) published a separate report which claimed that women’s prisons are failing to meet the physical and mental health needs of their residents – whilst warning that building more prison places for women would make matters worse.
The PAC report, called Improving Outcomes for Women in the Criminal Justice System, said that the goals in the Female Offender Strategy were widely welcomed when it was published in 2018, but found that “actual progress delivering it has been disappointing”. It commented: “The strategy is not underpinned by the goals or metrics that would allow MoJ to be held to account on the strategy or demonstrate its value”. It called on the Government to “spend to save” by putting more resources into diverting women away from crime.
Dame Meg Hillier, the Labour MP who chairs the PAC, said: “Once again we see a situation where government is unwilling or unable to prioritise the investment needed to reduce the ruinous financial, social and human costs of our creaking criminal justice system.
“Imprisoning a vulnerable woman who perhaps has children – who may then also fall between the cracks – is the very picture of the cost-shunting that became the hallmark of our criminal justice system long before the massive new challenges of the pandemic. The result of this gap between rhetoric and reality is an unacceptable human and economic toll.”
The APPG, a panel of MPs and peers, began taking evidence from experts last year for an inquiry into the health and wellbeing of female prisoners. Publishing its first findings, it highlighted evidence of poor living conditions and rising self-harm in women’s jails – whilst pointing out that the majority of residents suffered from violence or abuse prior to being convicted and sentenced.
Jackie Doyle-Price, the Conservative MP who co-chairs the APPG, said: “Expert witnesses have explained how prison environments that failed to promote good health before the pandemic have deteriorated further in the months and years since, as restrictions have kept women locked in their cells for up to 23 hours a day.
“This requires urgent attention. The government has published a Prisons Strategy White Paper, which recognises that women in the criminal justice system have complex needs. Unfortunately, however, the current proposals represent a missed opportunity to address the specific issues women face. The focus should be on stopping unnecessary use of custody – not prison expansion, which would only pull more women into a system that fails to provide the care and support they require.”
The 12 women’s prisons in England have 3,200 residents. The Government committed to building 500 extra places after Ministry of Justice forecasters said the number of women in prison was expected to rise by 35 per cent over four years due to longer sentences and the recruitment of more police officers. Expansion will take place through the building of new cellblocks at existing jails, with no plans for new jails. Ministers have said the new accommodation will be of higher quality than some of the existing cells, which may be taken out of service if prisoner numbers do not rise to the anticipated extent. The PAC and APPG reports were both published in the last week in April.