Jane Sheen has been a magistrate, nurse teacher and health visitor. She was interested in a scheme being run by the London School of Economics and the Griffins Society, a voluntary organisation working for the care and resettlement of female offenders, including those with a history of mental illness and violent behaviour, which she read about in Community Care. The society was offering year-long fellowships providing “thinking space” for those who wanted to study a particular aspect of the circumstances or treatment of women offenders.
Sheen recognised that the prison population was seen increasingly as part of a primary care group’s community. Since March 2000, the NHS and Prison Service have sought to reduce offending and promote health. Sheen applied successfully to study the health needs of resettling female offenders. She describes her year as “useful and interesting”, citing the LSE connection as particularly valuable in “opening many doors that have otherwise been closed”.
Her findings are to be published soon – along with those of other fellows – and she has been meeting local health authorities which now identify her as a major source of information on what is happening in the health care of female prisoners.
The Griffins Society was set up in 1965, growing out of the abolition of Holloway Prison’s Discharged Prisoners’ Aid Society when responsibility for prison welfare and after care was transferred to the probation service. Beginning with one voluntary aftercare hostel, over the next 30 years the organisation developed five hostels for women offenders in north London, all of which were transferred to another organisation in 1996. From 2001, the society’s change of emphasis included funding four fellowships worth £3,000, each within the department of social policy at the LSE.
The successful subjects covered have been as diverse as the backgrounds of the fellows themselves. Carlie Newman, a lay magistrate, focused on women offenders aged over 50 within the criminal justice system. She was concerned that statistics showed a huge rise in the number of women prisoners between 1999, when there were 1,659 in custody, and February 2002, when there were 4,195 (of whom 120 were aged 60 and over).
Kate Storer, a probation officer, looked at breach rates of female offenders. She considered that more female offenders breach during the summer holidays than any other time, and wanted to research the evidence for this.
Another fellow focused her research “on Asian female offenders and their experiences of being released into the community having served a custodial sentence”. She chose this specific group because, she says: “Being of Asian origin myself, I know that there is a stigma attached to these women, particularly from their own families and communities.”
Rachel Chapman, a fee-earner for a solicitor’s firm, looked at resettlement issues facing women serving life sentences. Chapman, who has since spoken at a conference organised by crime prevention charity Nacro on resettling women, says: “I welcomed the opportunity to step outside the confines of my usual work and focus on a particular issue. It allowed me time to think about issues that are often raised and to consider how these might be addressed.
“I gained the greatest insight from talking to the women about their own experiences and how they perceived the issues. It is easy to make assumptions from the outside and never appreciate the reality from those experiencing it. The research has opened my eyes to the wider issues and allowed me to see my own work within this context.”
The important thing for the fellowships is that their research influences policy and practice. Indeed, since last year’s fellowships, the LSE, the Griffins Society and the fellows themselves have met the Prison Service’s women’s estate policy unit and the Home Office’s women’s policy team to share information and findings from the projects.
Applications by letter should be received by 30 April 2003 and should include the following, but check with the society for full list:
- Details of the proposed study, including aims and objectives, methods and timescales.
- A curriculum vitae.
- Contact details for the applicant.