Justice CommitteeWritten evidence from the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS)

1. The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) is one of the largest trade union in the UK, with around 270,000 members. We are organised throughout the civil service and government agencies, making us the UK’s largest civil service trade union. We also organise widely in the private sector, usually in areas that have been privatised.

2. There are currently over 5,500 PCS members in a range of jobs across the National Offender Management Service NOMS (HM Prison Service), including managers, governors, instructional officers, administration and support workers, and colleagues working on the rehabilitation of offenders through employment and training.

3. PCS has a stated policy of full support for the Corston Report and its recommendations and has agreed to work closely with the NOMS management to ensure their implementation.

The Corston Report

4. PCS would echo the sentiments expressed by Baroness Corston in her foreword to the Report:

“There are many women in prison, either on remand or serving sentences for minor, non-violent offences, for whom prison is both disproportionate and inappropriate. Many of them suffer poor physical and mental health or substance abuse, or both. Large numbers have endured violent or sexual abuse or had chaotic childhoods. Many have been in care. I have concluded that we are rightly exercised about paedophiles, but seem to have little sympathy, understanding or interest in those who have been their victims, many of whom end up in prison. The tragic series of murders in Suffolk during December 2006 rightly focussed public attention on these women as women first and foremost—someone’s daughter, mother, girlfriend, then as victims—exploited by men, damaged by abuse and drug addiction. These are among the women whom society must support and help to establish themselves in the community. It seems to me that it is essential to do more to address issues connected with women’s offending before imprisonment becomes a serious option.”

5. The recommendations in the Report that PCS felt would be particularly effective were:

The government should announce a clear strategy to replace existing women’s prisons with suitable, geographically dispersed, small, multi-functional custodial centres

Where women are imprisoned, the conditions available to them must be clean and hygienic with improvements to sanitation arrangements addressed as a matter of urgency

Strip-searching in women’s prisons should be reduced to the absolute minimum compatible with security; and the Prison Service should pilot ion scan machines in women’s prisons as a replacement for strip-searching women

The work underway in respect of foreign national offenders should take account of the views expressed in the report. The strategy being developed should include measures designed to prevent prison becoming a serious option. (Chapter 3)

The immediate establishment of a Commission for women who offend or are at risk of offending, with a remit of care and support for women who offend or are at risk of offending.

There should be greater visible direction in respect of women in custody and a much higher profile.

The Report did not recommend a separate sentencing framework for women but recommended this should be reconsidered in the light of early experience of the statutory gender discrimination duty. (Chapter 4)

Custodial sentences for women must be reserved for serious and violent offenders who pose a threat to the public. Women unlikely to receive a custodial sentence should not be remanded in custody. Women must never be sent to prison for their own good, to teach them a lesson, for their own safety or to access services such as detoxification.

More supported bail placements for women suitable to their needs must be provided. Defendants who are primary carers of young children should be remanded in custody only after consideration of a probation report on the probable impact on the children. Community solutions for non-violent women offenders should be the norm. Community sentences must be designed to take account of women’s particular vulnerabilities and domestic and childcare commitments.

Sentencers must be informed about the existence and nature of those schemes that do exist and should support and visit them. The restrictions placed on sentencers around breaches of community orders must be made more flexible as a matter of urgency. (Chapter 5)

The Together Women Programme must be extended and a larger network of community centres should be developed in accordance with a centrally coordinated strategic national plan. Services should be provided based on the one-stop-shop approach of centres and must be appropriate and coordinated to meet the profiled needs of local women, including minorities such as BME women. Women’s centres should be used as referral centres for women who offend or are at risk of offending. Referral should be by schools, general practitioners, probation, prisons, police, courts, CPS, self and other individuals.

Women’s centres should also be used as court and police diversions; as part of a package of measures for community sentences; and for delivery of probation and other programmes.

There must be a strong consistent message right from the top of government, with full reasons given, in support of its stated policy that prison is not the right place for women offenders who pose no risk to the public. (Chapter 6)

All magistrates’ courts, police stations, prisons and probation offices should have access to a court diversion/Criminal Justice Liaison and Diversion scheme in order to access timely psychiatric assessment for women offenders suspected of having a mental disorder.

Sentencers must be able to access timely psychiatric reports and fail to remand in custody/sentence if not available.

DH at the highest level should reconfirm its commitment to implement not just its own Women’s Mental Health Strategy but also to the action it signed up to in respect the Women’s Offending Reduction Programme (WORP). This will require senior leadership within DH.

There must also be an investment in more rigorous training and ongoing support and supervision for all those charged with meeting the complex needs of women. This training, which should include gender awareness and how community sentences can meet the needs of female offenders, should be extended to include all staff within the criminal justice system in contact with women, particularly those who make sentencing and bail decisions.

The NHS should provide health care services to police custody suites; in busy areas this will require a 24-hour presence and ideally be a registered mental health worker.

The management and care of self-harming women should be led by the NHS, either in an NHS resource or shared multi-disciplinary care in prison.

Separate Women’s prison service and offender management

6. PCS would go further than the above recommendations, in that we believe there is scope to establish a separate women’s prison service or even investigate giving local authorities primary responsibility for women offenders. At the very least, PCS believes the system should be reviewed in the context of the Corston Report and the issues revisited.

7. The Youth Justice Board and Youth Offender Services may work as models of how a separate Women’s prison service and offender management might operate.

8. The reason for this recommendation is that PCS believes that the profile of women offenders differs from that of male offenders in some very important ways. For example four out of five women prisoners have mental health problems, most commonly depression and anxiety. Almost half have been subject to abuse during their lives. One in three has a child under five. Furthermore, it is unusual for women to be habitual offenders or be charged with serious violence.

9. Women in prison bring with them a considerable amount of vulnerability: one in ten will have attempted suicide, half say they have experienced domestic violence and a third sexual assault. Half of all incidents of self-harm in prisons will be committed by a woman even though women represent only 6% of the total prison population.

10. 60% of women remanded into custody do not receive a custodial sentence.

Progress since Corston

11. PCS like many others recognise there has been some progress on the Corston Report recommendations, but we feel there is still much to do. For example, PCS notes the findings in the 2010 Report—Women in prison: A short thematic review by HM Inspectorate of Prisons, which says, by way of introduction, that four main themes stand out:

12. The first is that closed women’s prisons are now nearly all fulfilling a multiplicity of roles. It is no longer accurate to define them as “local” or “training” prisons. That arises from decisions to re-role five women’s prisons to accommodate the expanding male prison population, so that there are fewer, often larger and almost always more complex women’s prisons. A further important consequence of this is that more women are held further from home, particularly women from the West Midlands. There is no sense of a planned strategic approach to the women’s prison estate, which is still subject to changes that respond instead to the needs of men—and in one case without any prior gender impact assessment, as the law now requires.

13. The second overall pattern is that women fare much better in open or semi-open prisons, which inspection reports consistently assess as safer and more effective than closed prisons. Sadly, the two prisons which were semi-open at the time of their last inspection have since become closed prisons.

14. Third, it is clear that there have been improvements in most women’s prisons. The improvement in the treatment and management of women with substance use problems—a significant proportion of those entering prison—has undoubtedly contributed to the drop in self-inflicted deaths in recent years. In relation to activities, all women’s prisons were performing at least reasonably well. Relationships with staff were good in most prisons, and had improved in some—though two other prisons had suffered deterioration. Health care, and particularly secondary mental health care, has improved, and women themselves report a better service. Since many of the reports were published, routine strip-searching of women has been abandoned.

15. That said, there remain areas of serious concern. The extent and seriousness of self-harm, particularly in women’s local prisons, remains high, sometimes resulting in extreme measures, including the use of force. Three women’s prisons were not judged to be sufficiently safe: one had noticeably declined when increased numbers led to the use of a large number of detached duty staff, many of them men. Dormitory accommodation in women’s prisons remained highly unsatisfactory, on grounds both of safety and respect. Three prisons were also not performing sufficiently well in resettlement, because services were not sufficiently aligned to the specific needs of women, or of the women who were held. Work with foreign nationals was often underdeveloped, a serious failing given the over-representation of this group within the women’s prison population. Many of the issues that affect the prison population generally had a particular resonance for women, given their vulnerability and needs: the lack of sufficient primary mental health care, the need for more alcohol services, and the lack of custody planning for short-sentenced and remanded women.

16. Overall, this report records commendable work in most women’s prisons, dealing with some extremely vulnerable and sometimes challenging women; though it also shows how quickly prisons can deteriorate unless closely managed and appropriately staffed. However, it will do nothing to allay the underlying concerns about the use of imprisonment, particularly in closed environments, for many women—especially as they are now more likely to be further from home and in larger, multi-functional establishments. In spite of a stated commitment to reduce the women’s prison population, it remains obstinately static, at the same level as a year ago. Work is certainly needed to improve the prisons we inspect; but even more work is needed to create and properly use viable and more appropriate alternatives to prison.

17. PCS believes that Nick Hardwick, then Chief Inspector of Prisons, summarised the progress made since the Corston report well when he wrote:

“First, and significantly, there have been real improvements since Baroness Corston reported almost exactly five years ago. These improvements are a testimony to the hard work and care of a lot of people within the prison service and without.

But second, despite those improvements, and despite so much dedicated work by prison staff and others—prisons—particularly as they are currently run, are simply the wrong place for so many of the distressed, damaged or disturbed women they hold.

And third, I think the treatment and conditions in which a small minority of the most disturbed women are held is—in relation to their needs—simply unacceptable. I think—I hope—we will look back on how we treated these women in years to come, aghast and ashamed.

And I want to be clear where responsibility lies. It does not lie with the officers, staff and governors on the ground—many of whom are simply humbling in the dedication and care with which they approach their work—or the officials and others trying to improve things in the centre. This is a responsibility that lies squarely at the door of successive governments and parliament.”

Summary

18. The Corston Report was a progressive and well-received inquiry. The government has clearly gone some way to addressing the issues raised in the Report but has only partially implemented the Report’s recommendations and should now seek to implement them in their entirety.

19. There is clearly still a problem in the management of women offenders. The number of women prisoners is still rising and there have been recent reports of increased prison overcrowding, with all the negative effects this has on both prisoners and staff.

20. Too many women are being held on remand unnecessarily. Consideration should be given to managing women offenders differently than to male offenders. This is because women commit different types of crime which are often of less serious nature for example shoplifting.

21. Women often have caring responsibilities for children or elderly relatives.

22. Women offenders are often themselves victims of abuse and have related issues such as homelessness, addiction or poor education levels.

23. The multi-agency approach within the Youth Offender Team has worked well and a similar system could be used for adults. Youth Justice is more tailored to the individual and adult justice more to the offence. Sentencing adapted to the individual may be desirable for women offenders.

24. Alternatives to custody should be used with greater confidence and more creativity. We firmly believe that investment in re-offending is fundamental in any responsible society.

25. The causes of offending need to be understood. Addictions, poverty and poor educational attainment cannot be easily addressed in prison but these are the vital ingredients to ensure that reconviction rates drop. Tackling poverty and dealing with unemployment would be the best way to reduce drug and alcohol dependency in our society. The very significant cuts to local councils threatens services to the most vulnerable people especially women and the young and are likely to impact on the number who become involved with drug and alcohol abuse.

26. We would support generally smaller, not overcrowded, local prisons and believe there needs to be decent education opportunities and a focus on obtaining meaningful employment on release. Any cost benefit analysis would show that the more funding put into preventing people offending in the first place (or keep them out of custody) then the more efficient the system is.

27. We reject prison privatisation as PCS is very concerned about the private sector making significant profit from the running of prisons, whilst placing jobs and conditions of service at risk. We have ethical reservations about the competition process and the outcomes of a profit-driven custodial service. We are calling for an independent review of market testing.

September 2012

References

The Corston Report: A report by Baroness Jean Corston of A review of women with particular vulnerabilities in the criminal justice system: http://www.justice.gov.uk/publications/docs/corston-report-march-2007.pdf

The Together Women Project Yorkshire and Humberside (TWP)—Previously a successful government demonstration project, TWP is now an independent charity with centres across Yorkshire. http://fhg693.demonweb.co.uk/TWP/who_we_are.html

Women prisoners need life support by Angela Greatley—Society Guardian, Tuesday 29 January 2008: http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2008/jan/29/women.prisoners

Women in prison: A short thematic review—Thematic report by HM Inspectorate of Prisons: http://www.justice.gov.uk/downloads/publications/inspectorate-reports/hmipris/thematic-reports-and-research-publications/Women_in_prison_short_thematic_2010_rps_.pdf

Women in prison: Corston five years on. Nick Hardwick (HM Chief Inspector of Prisons) 29 February 2012: http://www.womeninprison.org.uk/news_show.php?id=70

Nearly two-thirds of prisons “overcrowded” (28 August 2012): http://www.channel4.com/news/two-thirds-of-uk-prisons-overcrowded-report

Prepared 12th July 2013