It’s time to deal with women and juveniles outside prison

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A recently retired UK prison governor this week joined the growing chorus of voices calling for a radical reform of prisons for women. The levels of damage and distress he found among the women he imprisoned at Styal prison near Manchester were simply too high to cope with in a prison setting. The self –inflicted deaths of two teenage boys in UK prisons within a week has also called into question whether prisons are appropriate places for young people of either sex who are under the age of 18.    There is nothing new in calls for changes in the treatment of vulnerable people deprived of their liberty. Five years ago a major independent review of women’s prisons, set up after a spate of suicides at Styal Prison, recommended a thorough overhaul of criminal justice for women.

All but one of its recommendations were accepted by the government and the intervening years have seen serious and welcome efforts to strengthen community alternatives and reduce the numbers of women going to prison . The recommendation rejected by the government, as neither feasible nor desirable , was that the existing system of women’s prisons should be dismantled and replaced by smaller secure units for the minority of women from whom the public requires protection.

Similarly in 1997 the Chief Inspector of Prison argued that the Prison Service should relinquish responsibility for all children under the age of 18. This radical proposal was rejected and instead the new Youth Justice Board was given a role in commissioning secure places for juveniles. Some improvements have resulted in youth justice since then, not least the sharp reductions in the use of custodial sentences over the last four years. But conditions in young offender prisons have changed relatively little and apart from a handful of especially created small units are simply unfit for purpose.

Finding more suitable alternative placements for the 4,100 women and 2000 under 18’s in prison should not be an impossible task. For juveniles the law allows custodial sentences to be served in a wide range of accommodation authorised by the Government.  Why not extend this provision to women? Responsibility for commissioning places could then be moved from central to local government .Local authorities, health and social care providers and the voluntary sector could be invited to establish a range of small, suitable facilities. There would need to be standards   but untethered from Prison rules and regulations which provide an often irrelevant and incongruous regimen for the care of young people and of women. Making local agencies accountable for the costs of custody could also incentivise efforts to develop community based alternatives which reduce unnecessary demand for secure places.

This approach would be much more likely than the  current system  to meet the requirements of international law. The new Bangkok Rules say that alternative ways of managing women who commit offences, such as diversionary measures and pre-trial and sentencing  alternatives, should  be implemented wherever appropriate and possible and that where deprivation of liberty is needed , women  should  be allocated to prisons close to their home . The European Rules for Juvenile Offenders say that the number of juveniles in an institution should be small enough to enable individualised care and organised into small living units.  Institutions should also be located in places that are easy to access and facilitate contact between the juveniles and their families. They should be established and integrated into the social, economic and cultural environment of the community.
In almost all countries, juveniles and women represent a very small proportion of the prison population. This means that their needs are seldom properly met by prison systems. But it also provides an opportunity for bold measures of prison reform.



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