Corston review of vulnerable women in prison: special report

“Vulnerable women who are not a danger to society should not be going to prison,” Home Office minister Baroness Scotland said this week, in response to a government-commissioned review on female offenders.

Her comments reflect stated government policy, endorsed in parliament by the home secretary.

“It is clear to me,” John Reid told the House of Commons in July 2006 “that there are people in prison who should not be there.”  These include vulnerable women, he said.

However the report by Labour peer Baroness Corston, published on Tuesday, shows that prisons are full of vulnerable women. Substance misuse, self-harm, mental illness, experience of abuse and domestic violence, and time spent in care are common among women prisoners, it finds

A forthcoming report on the health of 500 women prisoners by Oxford University is cited by Corston.

The study finds that women in custody are more than five times likely to have a mental health concern than women in the general population, with 78 per cent exhibiting some level of psychological disturbance on reception into prison. Fifty eight per cent of women had used drugs daily in the six months before prison and 75 per cent had taken an illicit drug in those six months.

The disturbing statistics are brought into sharp focus with an account of a typical ten-day period in one women’s prison included in the Corston report:

  • A woman had to be operated on as she had pushed a cross-stitch needle deep into a self-inflicted wound.
  • A woman in the segregation unit with mental health problems had embarked on a dirty protest.
  • A pregnant woman was taken to hospital to have early induced labour over concerns about her addicted unborn child. She went into labour knowing that social services would take the baby away shortly after birth.
  • A young woman with a long history of self-harm continued to open old wounds to the extent that she lost dangerous amounts of blood. She refused to engage with staff.
  • A woman was remanded into custody for strangling her six-year-old child. She was in a state of shock.
  • A woman set fire to herself and her bedding.
  • A woman who was extremely dangerous in her psychosis had to be placed in the segregation unit for the safety of the other women until alternative arrangements could be made.
  • A crack cocaine addict who displayed disturbing and paranoid behaviour (but who had not been diagnosed with any illness) was released. She refused all offers of help to be put in touch with community workers.

Corston calls for women’s prisons to be scrapped and replaced with small units to house the minority of serious and violent female offenders who pose a threat to the public.

Community sentences
For non-violent offenders – most women in prison – community sentences should be the norm, the report states.

Corston describes a prison system set up and run for the majority of its inmates – men – that fails to meet the needs of female prisoners and their children.

“I have been dismayed at the high prevalence of institutional misunderstanding within the criminal justice system of the things that matter to women and at the shocking level of unmet need,” she says.

Plenty of research on tackling the plight of women in the criminal justice system exists – much of it commissioned by the government – but is not implemented, says Corston.

 “There can be few topics that have been so exhaustively researched to such little practical effect,” states the report.

Corston wants to see an extension of the therapeutic work done by women’s centres run by the voluntary and statutory sectors and suggests that more offenders should be referred there.

The work of Calderdale women’s centre in Halifax, Asha in Worcester and 218 in Glasgow is praised. All support disadvantaged women including offenders.

Successful initiatives highlighted in the Corston report include the Together Women programme (allocated over £9m in 2005 by the government) to pilot new community initiatives for female offenders, including multi-agency support. It builds on the work pioneered by the Calderdale, Asha, and 218 centres, and others.

The women’s offending reduction programme – launched in 2004 to co-ordinate work by government departments and agencies also finds favour with Corston.

Female offenders
She calls for the setting up of a cross-departmental ministerial group for female offenders and those at risk of offending, and a new commission to champion women and set service specifications for this group.

The report focuses on the importance of the new duty on public bodies to promote gender equality, in transforming services for women. This comes into force on 6 April.

The Corston review was commissioned by the Home Office after six deaths at Styal women’s prison between 2002 and 2003.

Home Office justice minister Baroness Scotland this week welcomed the Corston report and said the government “will now give serious and detailed consideration of the issues it raises and the recommendations it makes for change”.

She added: “These recommendations will be carefully explored with all the departments and agencies concerned and the government will develop a detailed response and set out an agreed way forward.”
Is this rather muted response government code for “Wholesale reform of women’s prisons is not our priority”?

Prison reform and women’s organisations certainly hope not.

A coalition of 16 charities welcomed the report, urging, “This is not a report for the home secretary’s to read pile, it’s for his to do list.”

A joint statement issued by the charities said:

“The Corston review signals a profound shift in the debate on women’s imprisonment away from abstract questions of what to do. The burning questions for the government now are how and when to implement the recommendations.”

Reduce crime
The coalition believes the following measures will reduce crime and benefit women, their families, and wider society:

1. The government must recognise that for most women who offend, prison does not work; it is inappropriate, unnecessary, and damaging.
2. Female offenders and those at risk of offending need local community-based services, close to their families and networked into local services.
3. To reduce crime and improve women’s lives it is crucial to address women’s complex needs, including poverty and debt, mental health problems, abuse and domestic violence, addictions, and housing.
4. A national cross-departmental properly resourced body must be set up with power to develop and enforce policy on female offenders and those at risk of offending and to commission services.

The charities in the coalition are Action for Prisoners’ Families, Asha Centre, Calderdale Centre, Clean Break, Creative and Supportive Trust, Fawcett Society, Greater London Domestic Violence Project, The Griffins Society, Hibiscus, Howard League for Penal Reform, Inquest, Nacro, Prison Reform Trust, SmartJustice, Women in Prison and Women’s Aid.

Other reactions to the Corston report:

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

 “The Corston review gives government the chance at long last to join up its social policy with its criminal justice policy. Most women in prison have committed petty offences.

“Very many have been victims of serious crime and sustained abuse. A new commission for women, with a sensible blueprint for reform across government departments, will largely do away with big prisons that operate as social dustbins for vulnerable women and introduce instead a network of small units and effective local services coupled with proper supervision and support.

“Many women who offend will have their first real opportunity to beat drugs, drink, mental illness and crime and to take responsibility for their lives, and those of their children, and most will take it.”

Deborah Coles, co-director of Inquest, said:

 “The dangerous and damaging consequences of imprisonment are illustrated by the 71 self-inflicted deaths of women in England and Wales since 1997 and the associated high levels of self-harm, mental distress and family disruption.

“Behind the statistics is a story of preventable tragedy. Inquests continue to expose appalling conditions of incarceration; inadequate health care; use of segregation and isolation for suicidal women; over-use of force; failure to implement suicide prevention guidelines; lack of staff training, and poor communication. They also expose criminal justice policies that send women to prisons that cannot keep them safe.

“A proper legacy for these women and their families would be an urgent change in government criminal justice policy to invest in radical community-based alternatives rather than more prisons.”

Pauline Campbell, mother of Sarah Campbell who died in Styal prison in 2003, said:

“I believe that women convicted of non-violent offences should be given community sentences; also, that offenders who are mentally ill should not be sent to prison – they need treatment and care in hospital, secure if necessary.  Prisons that segregate women at risk must end this dangerous practice, and the overuse of force must stop.  The Corston review must act as a catalyst for change, and the government must act swiftly to implement the recommendations.”

Lucy Gampell, director of Action for Prisoners’ Families, said:

 “The Corston report rightly acknowledges the devastating effect that imprisonment has on the children of women offenders. Only five per cent of children stay in the family home when their mother is sent to prison. These children can have their lives devastated and face significant mental health problems and failure at school. Sending mothers to prison causes irreparable damage to children and it is a decision that should not be taken lightly. We welcome the recommendations to increase the use of alternatives to custody for women and believe that prison should only be used as a last resort.”

Director of the SmartJustice campaign Lucie Russell said:

“At last – hope for women convicted of non-violent offences in our jails. This report outlines major changes to the way we deal with these women – who are not evil, violent offenders – just damaged, often by drugs, alcohol, domestic violence and child abuse. Prison for them is just an expensive way of making their offending worse. Eight out of ten female shoplifters are reconvicted within two years of release and 18,000 children are separated from their mothers by imprisonment each year – simply creating potential generations of future offenders.”

Related items
Inspection report on Styal prison in 2006

Substance misuse information

Mental health information

Domestic violence information


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