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HMP Holloway is one probably one of the UK’s most iconic prisons. It has incarcerated a number of high profile women since its opening in 1852 including the suffragettes, Diana Mitford and Ruth Ellis – a case which prompted the welcome abolition of hanging.
The news of its closure is another event – although less tragic – which I hope prompts a sea change of thinking in the way we currently treat people in the criminal justice system – particularly women. Of the 3,498 women currently held in custody in the UK, 82% are in there for non-violent offences. 41% were in for theft and handling stolen goods.
This would bear testament to the women supported through St Giles Trust in our work in prisons and in the community to offer peer-led resettlement. Most are caught in a cycle of homelessness, addiction, petty crime and mental ill health. Is prison really the place for them?
Women who are already very vulnerable are placed in environments where they are unlikely to thrive – despite the best efforts of committed staff in prisons – thus their situation worsens. They are separated from their children who often end up being taken into care – which increases the likelihood of them ending up as the next generation behind bars. These are often families who are already disadvantaged. Ripping them further apart makes no sense.
I want to make clear that I have the deepest respect for the staff in Holloway and it fully deserves its 3 star ranking from inspectors. Some excellent work takes place in Holloway and we are proud to be working inside it delivering our Peer Advice Project. However, it is not the prison itself that should be under question. It is what happens to the women before they end up serving sentences in there.
Last month (19 November), I co-chaired with Will Hutton the launch of a report from ACEVO calledRemaking The State, which argues for more spending on prevention services to bring about long-term cost savings to the public purse. I would suggest that having a different approach to women who have committed a crime would be a good starting point.
The average annual cost of keeping someone in prison is £40,000 and a child in care costs the state £200,000. A more humane and cost effective solution would be to deal with women in the community in a manner in which they pay their debt to society but are still able to look after their children and get the right support to address the issues driving their offending.
The worst result of Holloway’s closure would be to hold women from London in custody hundreds of miles from home, cut off from their support networks. Therefore solutions could include an intelligent form of tagging so they can effectively serve their sentences at home under licence restrictions but still able to look after their children, volunteer, go to work and get any help they need to address underlying issues.
Those who carry out the most serious crimes involving violence should of course be removed from society and placed into custody. But these make up a very small proportion of the women who are currently behind bars. Many of these have committed minor offences and are desperate, destitute and traumatised. For them, prison is not the solution.
Instead, target the money currently used to keep women locked up into longer-term preventative solutions. This means help for those suffering domestic abuse, drug and alcohol problems and mental health issues. It means helping them get housed and increasing their skills and confidence so they enter the workforce. It will certainly mean help with childcare and parenting.
By giving them the opportunity to aspire to and realise a life beyond crime, prison and disadvantage we will not only save money in the long term – we will reduce intergenerational offending, the number of future victims and the misery and distress that is caused by inappropriately locking up vulnerable women.