Let women prisoners out during week, say lawyers

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The Independent Online

Women prisoners should only spend time in custody at weekends and in the evening so that they can spend more time with their children, an influential group of lawyers will say this week.

The Association of Women Barristers, which will outline its plans on Saturday, argues that such "intermittent" sentences will help cut down the disproportionate rates of self-harm among women inmates.

Kim Hollis QC, the chairwoman of the AWB, added that they could also help curb the number of prisoners' children who fall into criminal behaviour. "If a single mother is sent to prison she will, at least temporarily, lose her children," she said. "It punishes the children... Intermittent sentences would see women serving their sentences at evenings and weekends, so they could continue to be primary carers for their children. They could also be used for women offenders who don't pose a threat to the public."

The plans were condemned as "absurd", however, by the Howard League for Penal Reform, which campaigns for prisoners' rights. Its director, Frances Crook, said the proposal was "the wrong way round". She added: "Most of the women in prison aren't in employment, and most childcare takes place in the evening and at weekends. We shouldn't send women to prison. [They] are not dangerous; they are sentenced to short periods because they commit less serious offences."

Half of Britain's 4,500 women prisoners have children under 16, and more than a third have children under five. There are 12 women's prisons in the UK, but just seven mother-and-baby units, with 69 places available. An estimated 160,000 children in the UK have parents in prison.

In October a report from the children's charity Barnardo's found that children of prisoners are three times more likely to display antisocial or delinquent behaviour, and more than twice as likely to have mental health problems in their lifetime.

Although women make up just 5 per cent of the prison population, they account for 50 per cent of self-harm incidents in jail. It is estimated that a third have been sexually abused at some time, and a fifth spent time in care as children.

The AWB's proposals follow a review of the women's prison regime by Labour's Baroness Corston two years ago. It recommended greater use of community sentences for the 79 per cent of women who are in prison for non-violent offences. Of the 4,398 women imprisoned in the UK last year, 1,434 were in for drug offences, 936 for violence against a person, and 476 for theft or handling stolen goods.

The Government is trying to implement the findings of the Corston review by reducing the number of women serving short sentences, and the number of women on remand, but it is not in favour of intermittent sentences for women.

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said that a trial run between 2004 and 2006 found that such sentences "disadvantaged" women prisoners due to travelling time and the difficulty of arranging childcare when they were in custody.