Ministry of Justice rejects small custodial units for women

The Ministry of Justice has rejected the case for replacing women’s prisons by small custodial units – one of the key recommendations of last year’s Corston report on vulnerable female offenders.

In a parliamentary statement this week, justice minister Maria Eagle said an MoJ study had found the idea of creating units for 20-30 women to deal with serious offenders “neither feasible nor desirable”.

In a government-commissioned report last March, Baroness Jean Corston called for the current women’s prisons system “of “large, self-contained institutions that are sparsely distributed across the country” to be disbanded, saying it was inappropriate.

She called on the government to produce within six months a clear strategy to create a system of small, geographically dispersed custodial units for the minority of serious female offenders, enabling them to maintain contact with their families and receive adequate therapeutic support.

Principles accepted

In a report to accompany Eagle’s statement, the MoJ said it accepted the “principles” of Corston’s recommendation – that custodial settings should provide a range of services and a suitable environment for vulnerable women, help maintain family links and lead to supported resettlement.

However, it said small units would lack the economies of scale to deliver the full range of services, particularly more specialist care and treatment. This could lead to prisoners having to move more often to access services, disrupting family links. It also claimed some women prisoners had expressed a fear of increased bullying in small units.

Instead, the MoJ backed the creation of smaller units within prisons, which it claimed could provide the benefits of Corston’s model without the costs. It said the design of a new 77-bed wing at HMP Bronzefield, Middlesex, due for completion next year, had been revised to provide a test-bed for Corston’s principles. It will be divided into three blocks, made up of single and double cells, with in-cell showers and baths for privacy and private meeting spaces in a central area.

Increased use of community sentences

The report also pledged to use any decline in custody numbers through increased use of community sentences – another key Corston aim – to reconfigure the prisons estate to better meet women’s needs, but only “if necessary, and if resources allow”.

The news comes after two leading penal charities – Women in Prison and the Prison Reform Trust – criticised the government’s lack of progress on implementing Corston’s recommendations, 40 out of 43 of which it accepted.

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