When you think of women in prison, you may think of Netflix shows which depict evil women addiction who have committed horrendous crimes of murder and child abuse. However, 84% of women are sentenced for non-violent crimes and the stories behind their crimes are often complex and traumatic.
Women make up less than 5% of the prison population in the UK. They are generally given short sentences for low-level crimes. But, evidence suggests that punishing women with short sentences only leads to increased risks for those offending and a high chance for reoffending. Improving addiction treatment services and mental health support could be a far more helpful approach to dealing with women who offend.
The 2018 Female Offender Strategy
From 2017 to 2022, there was a decrease of women in prison from 3,958 to 3,219. However, the Ministry of Justice predicts that the current number could increase by a third over the next three years. Four years earlier in 2018, they had recognised that women who offend often have complex needs with many experiencing mental health problems, substance misuse, homelessness, abuse, and trauma. In response to this, the Ministry of Justice set up the 2018 Female Offender Strategy.
The strategy aimed to improve Out of Court Disposals as an alternative to custodial sentences. This would divert women away from custody so that they could be helped rather than punished. However, while the strategy seemed promising, there is little evidence that women have been diverted away from prison sentences.
Factors that Contribute to Female Offending
A new report investigated the factors which contribute to women offending. Most women in prison have experienced trauma in their life which can contribute to mental health problems, homelessness, and addiction, all of which are factors that can lead to offending. About 53% of women in prison have experienced child abuse and more than half have experienced domestic violence.
Women in prison are five times more likely to have mental health issues compared to women in the general population. The majority of them are suffering from mental health problems with 65% suffering from depression. Self-harm and suicide are also alarmingly common. There are 23% of self-harm incidents in prison carried out by women despite them representing only five percent of the prison population. In addition, 46% of women in prison attempt suicide at some point and they are forty-times more likely to attempt suicide when they leave prison compared to women in the general population.
Homelessness is also a major problem for women in prison. Over 50% of women at HMP Bronzefield, the largest women’s prison in the UK, are released into homelessness every year. Because prison sentences for women are often short, those who enter prison with unstable housing often do not have time to secure housing before they leave. It is common to fall into a cycle of homelessness and reoffending. Many women will want to go back to prison because it offers a warm place, three meals a day, and relative safety compared to the street where they are easy targets of violence and even sex trafficking.
Taking drugs is a common way to deal with trauma and mental health problems. It provides a relief or a numbing from feelings. It is no secret that drugs are a big problem for those in the prison system. Six in ten women reported using Class A drugs in the four weeks before they were arrested, over half reported committing a crime to support someone else’s drug use, and 49% had a drug use problem before arriving in prison.
When women go to prison, they experience withdrawal symptoms as they do not have the same access to drugs. In prison they are monitored and treated; however, if their sentence is short, they may not have time to complete an addiction treatment program. Additionally, long-term sobriety requires a life-long commitment so being forced into it generally does not work. When women are released from prison, they are more likely to overdose when they start taking again as their tolerance is lower than it was when they entered prison.
Most women are in prison for non-violent crimes. Short sentences do not allow them time to make improvements such as finding a home or getting treatment for substance use disorders. In fact, short sentences can make these problems worse. Crime is often the result of bigger societal problems such as homelessness and drug use, so to prevent women from offending, we need to focus on the reasons that women are committing crimes.
The factors that contribute to a high risk of committing crime feed into each other. If you have mental health problems and have become homeless, you are more likely to start taking drugs. This in turn exacerbates your mental health problems leading to continued drug use. Your drug problem costs a lot to maintain and makes it difficult to hold down employment, making it hard to find stable housing.
It costs approximately £65,000 per year to keep someone in HMP Bronzefield. It would be more effective to invest this money in community rehabilitation, mental health services, affordable housing, and addiction treatment services. These services should be made more accessible for those who have already committed crimes as well as those who are yet to commit crimes.
The 2018 Female Offender Strategy has fallen short in its support for women offenders. The government needs to make it clearer what funding will be used to develop women-specific pathways away from prison sentences and when these services will be in operation. For these pathways to be successful, they will need to address the reasons that women offend and reoffend. In this way they can develop preventative strategies rather than patching up a problem which has already occurred.