Jailed women will serve their sentences closer to home

‘The Independent’ argued for shake-up in system to offer more support and rehabilitation

Women prisoners will be held as close to their homes as possible and guaranteed help to return to the outside world under measures to be announced today to break the cycle of female offending.

The measures follow a series of articles in The Independent last year which spotlighted the plight of women offenders, who are often sentenced for relatively minor crimes, as well as the traumatic effect on their families.

In a wide-ranging shake up of the prisons estate, all 12 female-only jails in England are to become “resettlement prisons” with rehabilitation work at their heart of their regimes.

Women will be given targeted help with drink, drug and mental health problems and begin to forge links with local communities which will continue after their release.

As part of the overhaul, they will be held in the nearest jail to their homes, helping them to maintain links with family and friends, and given advice on jobs, housing and training in an effort to smooth their transition to life outside prison.

The initiative was welcomed by Vicky Pryce, the ex-wife of former minister Chris Huhne, who recently spent two months behind bars after being found guilty of perverting the course of justice.

She told The Independent: “Keeping women close to their families is absolutely essential. Otherwise they can lose contact, their children are taken into care and the cost to society is enormous.”

The Ministry of Justice is also to develop an open unit at Styal women's prison, Cheshire, where small groups of inmates will be given intensive support to find jobs when they are freed. It will initially be run on a pilot basis, but is intended to be rolled out across other women's prisons.

Ms Pryce said: “Getting into work again takes away the stigma of having been to jail and makes it easier to make the transition into public life and not be a drain on the public purse.”

The female prison population stood last week at 3,952, which represents a drop of 160 over the last 12 months. The vast majority are jailed for less serious offences such as shoplifting - almost three-quarters of the women imprisoned last year received sentences of less than 12 months.

Lord McNally, the Justice Minister, said: “When a female offender walks out of the prison gates, I want to make sure she never returns.

"Keeping female prisoners as close as possible to their homes, and importantly their children, is vital if we are to help them break the pernicious cycle of re-offending."

But Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said the emphasis should be on preventing women being jailed in the first place by tackling the problems that lead to offending.

She said: "Trying to improve women's imprisonment would be a waste when the best way to reduce women's offending is to invest in treatment for addictions, mental healthcare, training for work and safe housing away from domestic violence and abuse."

The Ministry of Justice is also expected to announce plans to create four personality disorder treatment services for female offenders.

The moves come six years after a review of women's prisons conducted by the Labour peer Baroness Corston called for all female-only jails to be closed by the year 2018 and replaced with smaller residential units. Although that recommendation has not been implemented, most of the others have.