Women on community sentences are being failed by the system

Hayley, a former offender, worked for the St Giles Trust’s Wire project, which proved highly effective at helping women prisoners resettle after release from jail. Funding for the project ended March 2015.

The last big change put in place by Chris Grayling still standing is the break up of the 100 year old successful probation service. The impact on women has been catastrophic and something needs to be done urgently to change the system to protect women.

Women given a short prison term now have to be handed over to private companies to supervise them for a year after their release. This didn’t happen until Grayling unnecessarily added it to everyone given a short prison sentence. Some will argue that it was introduced to help and support women, and men, but as I far as I can see it is doing neither, it just punishes them for longer and sets them up to fail. We are already seeing hundreds of people being returned to prison for failing to obey the strictures imposed by the community rehabilitation companies (there is an oxymoron for you).

Many more women are given a community sentence but they too are being failed.

Baroness Corston and I went to see Simon Hughes when he was (briefly) the prisons minister to urge him to make sure that women’s centres were funded as part of the privatisation of probation. He didn’t. The consequence has been that women’s centres have had their funding cut by the private companies and some have withdrawn from delivering justice services completely because it was no longer financially viable.

I have seen a letter from the minister responsible for equalities and justice, Caroline Dinenage, clearly stating that women are being short-changed in the new landscape.

She admits that the capital coming from the sale of Holloway will not benefit women but will sink into the building of huge new prisons for men.

She admits that CRCs do not have to fund women’s centres or provide women only services. In fact, the cut-rate contracts and payment by results model pushes the CRCs to do everything on the cheap and that means getting as many people as possible processed through the system as they can. Group work is the way they do it. It is totally unsuitable, and possibly dangerous, to place a lone woman in a group of men to deal with offending behaviour which I fear is what will happen to women in rural areas and small towns where there simply are not enough women to form a group.

Anyway, group work is not appropriate for many very vulnerable women. The success of women’s centres has been to care for women as individuals. It works, as the Ministry of Justice research and evaluations show.

These years of expertise and experience of successful working with the few women who commit crimes is being lost.

The CRCs are not caring for women properly and safely; they are too expensive.

The only route out of this morass is to take women out of this structure completely.

I suggest we look at having a national system for managing women in the penal system including on community sentences. The CRCs would probably welcome having no more responsibility for managing the handful of women in their area and a national service, or the probation service, could resurrect the centres of excellence and good practice.

I would be all part of a chipping away at the muddle that is ‘Transforming Rehabilitation’ that over coming years is likely to implode anyway. Let’s rescue women first.


(This piece first appeared on Frances Crook’s blog. The original is here. Thanks to the Howard League for Penal Reform for allowing us to share this.)

(Photo Credit: Martin Godwin / The Guardian)

Prison means business … for real

A report came out yesterday suggesting that probation in the United States is big, predatory business. The report opens: “The United States Supreme Court has ruled that a person sentenced to probation cannot then be incarcerated simply for failing to pay a fine that they genuinely cannot afford. Yet many misdemeanor courts routinely jail probationers who say they cannot afford to pay what they owe—and they do so in reliance on the assurances of for-profit companies with a financial stake in every single one of those cases.”

Women figure prominently among the lists of the abused and caged. Here’s a typical story. Judge James Straight, a Justice Court judge in Bolivar County, Mississippi, remembers a woman who called his court, weeping. She claimed probation officers, who worked for Judicial Correction Services or JCS, had threatened to have her jailed for a bill of $500. Working a low-paying job, she had struggled to keep up with her payments. When she offered to pay $200, the probation officer said she had to pay it all. So the woman, frantic, called the Judge. His clerk looked into the matter and found that originally the woman had been fined $377, for driving without a valid license. More to the point, she had paid off the entire amount, but still owed JCS about $500 in fees.

Four years ago, a major report came out detailing the rise of the modern debtors’ prison. Across the country, people would end up in prison because they couldn’t pay minor fines or fees, `legal financial obligations’, or LFOs … in the business. Some jails charge prisoners $12 entry fee, $60 a day for room and board, and then reimbursement for medical and other services. You have to pay to play. The Saginaw County Jail, in Michigan, charged people $12 to get out of jail. It was called an “administrative fee.” Women in Michigan have been charged as much as $10,000 in “tether fees”, the price of parole supervision. At a little under $100 a week, and that was in 2010, it was a bargain. Of course, nonpayment of these fees went straight to credit bureaus, and so the vicious circle, or noose, wound ever tighter around each woman.

Eight years ago, in 2006, there was the case of Ora Lee Hurley, who owed $705 in fines, a fine she had incurred in 1990. Hurley was sentenced to 120 days in jail, and then to more jail. The Judge ruled that Hurley had to stay in confinement until she paid her fine. So, Ora Lee Hurley stayed in custody at the Gateway Diversion Center, which is neither a gateway nor a diversion and not much of a center. Five days a week, Hurley left the center and went to work. She earned about $700 a month, of which she paid $600 a month, to the State of Georgia, for room and board, and $52 a month for public transportation. As a result, Ora Lee Hurley stayed a prisoner for at least eight months beyond her sentence. During that time, she earned over $7000, almost all of which went to pay for `room and board.’ If it hadn’t been for the Southern Center for Human Rights, who petitioned for her release, Ora Lee Hurley would probably still be confined today.

Prison means business, yesterday, four years ago, eight years ago. While reports are useful, it’s time. Across the United States, women face new structures of debt designed to send them into cages that then turn them into walking ATMs. End that debt, open those cages.


(Image Credit: Southern Center for Human Rights)