The recent announcement that 500 new prison places will be created for women as part of the Ministry of Justice’s new initiative to “steer women away from crime”, includes some positive notes, but also raise concerns from our perspective.

We are encouraged to see as part of these plans, a drive to improve conditions for women in prison, that will enable more women to benefit from better quality family contact, particularly with their children, which as we know is absolutely vital. And it is also good to see that these plans are designed to support more women to be held in open conditions, which means they can have overnight visits with children, and start organising finance, work and accommodation, which puts them in much better stead to make a fresh start on release.

We are also pleased to see funding going towards organisations that work hard to divert women who offend from custody – and to support women after release. We recognise the important role that women’s centres play in this area of work, and we are proud to work collaboratively, and stand in solidarity with organisations like Advance, Women In Prison (WIP), Women at the Well and Anawim.

That being said, our concern is that what isn’t being addressed through these plans, is the vast amount of evidence that suggests we should be focusing on imprisoning fewer women. There is a wealth of evidence that shows high reoffending rates for women who are given custodial sentences, in comparison to those who are given community sentences. We know that for many women, who have often committed non-violent crimes, and are serving short prison sentences of less than 12 months, the impact on their family relationships, particularly with their children, can be devastating.

As Covid-19 has swept through the prison estate over the past year, the impact on women has been keenly felt. Incidences of self-harm and suicide were already alarmingly high, but a year of 23+ hours a day being locked in a cell, with practically no face to face contact with children and loved ones, has seen cases of self-harm and suicide increase at a worrying rate.

Our hope is that the government will look again at the End of Custody Temporary Release scheme, which originally pledged to release 4,000 people – those who were in the last months of their sentence and therefore a low risk. Unfortunately this was paused in August 2020 after just 262 people were released. Reintroducing this could see many women reunited with their families in the short term.

But in the medium to long term, and in a post-Covid world, it’s clear that we need to make better use of alternatives to custody for women who have committed offences, and minimise the harmful impact this has on their lives, on children and families, and on society as a whole.

Find out more

  • Read Mum's the Wordan easy-to-read, practical book for mothers in prison. It is based on a series of workshops facilitated by Pact with mothers in HMP Eastwood Park and HMP Bronzefield. Bringing hope and encouragement, it is a realistic and honest attempt to deal with the difficult issues facing mothers in prison, their children and those who are caring for children on the outside. 
  • Listen to Women Flip the Script, a unique combination of audio and written material created in collaboration with, and for, women with experience of the criminal justice system. It's an exciting resource, combining personal testimonies with practical tips, advice and peer support. All of the audio was recorded by women on their mobile phones, capturing moments as they happened - with no script and no rehearsals.