Key to fair and effective treatment of women offenders is community care not custody

8 April 2014

A new report, published by BACP in collaboration with the Centre for Mental Health and Women’s Breakout, has revealed a reassuring breadth and depth in the mental health interventions available at women’s community centres in the UK.

The publication in July last year of Women offenders: after the Corston Report highlighted once again this important issue, and drew attention to the unacceptable delays in the implementation of the original 2007 report, and the ongoing marginalization of women offenders.

We already know that prison is an expensive and ineffective way of dealing with many women offenders who do not pose a significant risk of harm to public safety. This latest report demonstrates that women’s community centres have established good working partnerships with other organisations such as local authorities, NHS trusts and probation services in order to meet the mental health needs of their clients. The findings back up existing evidence suggesting that in many cases referral to women’s community centres is a more effective cost-effective solution than imposing a custodial sentence.

Amanda Hawkins, Chair of BACP, says:

“Over 80% of sentenced women entering prison have been convicted of non-violent offences. There is a strong case for diverting women from custody when considering reoffending, particularly for those sentenced to the shortest terms. Women’s community centres offer a cost effective alternative to custody – our latest report shows that they allow women to access a range of services including counselling, drug and alcohol support, education, safe accommodation, advice on finance, benefit and debt as well as general advocacy, supervision and support.”

Sean Duggan, Chief Executive of Centre for Mental Health, agrees:

“The vast majority of women who offend have one or more mental health problem. Imprisoning women, even for a short time, can damage their mental health and lead their children to go into care. Women’s community centres offer an ideal location for mental health support for women offenders who can be diverted from custody and rehabilitated without going to prison. It is encouraging to see that many already offer a range of psychological therapies, including counselling and mindfulness. We now need to find out more about what support women need, what outcomes can be achieved and how it can be delivered in all parts of the country.”

Further highlighting the potentially damaging effects of custody, and the importance of women’s community centres, Jackie Russell, Director of Women’s Breakout, says:

“For women, prison is far less effective as a deterrent or a reforming opportunity than for men; and for the majority of women it is a deeply damaging experience. In the year to March 2013, 264 women per 1,000 in custody self-harmed, compared to 70 men per 1,000; and among the female prison population there were 1,547 incidents per 1,000 prisoners as compared with 200 incidents per 1,000 prisoners in the male estate. Women leaving custody have very complex needs and without a very different form of support, outcomes are poor. Women’s community centres are at the heart of this different approach, providing an alternative to custody or support post custody, and this is particularly evident in the sensitive and collaborative way in which they offer health support.”

An important conclusion of today’s report is the need for future studies to explore in further detail the types of evaluations and outcome measures used by services to assess their mental health provision. The development of a standardised approach to client data collection and a robust package of valid and reliable outcome measures for use across services will give additional confidence to magistrates to refer women offenders outside the criminal justice system.

Amanda Hawkins adds:

“At BACP, we offer our continued support to organisations such as Women’s Breakout, the Centre for Mental Health and the Prison Reform Trust, who campaign to highlight the mental health requirements of women in the criminal justice system. Through this support, regular engagement with members of Parliament, and collaboration with our numerous members who work every day with women in prisons, we will continue to draw attention to the wellbeing needs of this vulnerable and marginalised community.”

View the report, Mental health provision in women’s community services, on the BACP website.

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