When Clive Chatterton retired as head of the women's prison at Styal in Cheshire he wrote a private letter to the then Justice Secretary, Kenneth Clarke. It constituted a damning indictment of the way this nation's criminal justice system handles many of the 10,000 women we put behind bars each year.
Mr Chatterton was no soft-hearted prison reformer. One of the country's most experienced prison governors he had spent 37 years working in men's prisons. But what he found in his first women's prison profoundly disturbed him. "I have never come across such a concentration of damaged, fragile and complex-needs individuals," he told Mr Clarke earlier this year. Half of the women in the prison should never have been sent there. Giving short sentences to vulnerable women is damaging and self-defeating, he said, citing one woman jailed for 12 days for stealing a £3 sandwich.
Many judges and magistrates to whom he had spoken "acknowledged that many of these women did not require a custodial sentence but then ask: 'What else can we do with them?'."
Urgent reform was needed, Mr Chatterton said. The Government should vigorously pursue alternatives to jail. He called for an immediate end to short sentences and the transfer of many women to secure mental health units where they could receive proper care. Alternatives to prison could be funded by the "huge" savings that would be made if we did not jail women for minor offences – around a third of the current prison population.
The idea of alternatives to prison was at the heart of the Government-ordered Corston review of the state of women's prisons in 2007. Its author, Baroness Jean Corston, had called for big women's jails to be closed and replaced by smaller units dedicated to tackling the problems which led women into crime in the first place. She also wanted a major expansion of punishment in the community as an alternative to prison.
"The Corston report was seminal and was mostly accepted and implemented except for her recommendation for smaller units," says Debra Baldwin, the senior civil servant responsible for women's prisons in the Ministry of Justice. Smaller units would be too costly at a time of public spending cuts.
"But it's not just that," she says. "In small units it's harder to deliver group programmes in things like occupational therapy, learning and skills training. And drugs prevention programmes work better where you can get a sizeable group because the women interact, supporting and challenging one another. If you kept women closer to home, in smaller units, it would be at the expense of such interactions."
Yet though the Government accepted 40 of the Corston's 43 recommendations it has been slow in making them happen. Five years on, Baroness Corston herself disputes the claim that her report was "mostly accepted and implemented". Indeed, she fears, things are going backwards.
"The Inter- Ministerial Group on Women Offenders set up by the last government has been abolished," she says. "Routine reporting to Parliament has stopped. The Criminal Justice Women's Policy Unit, staffed by officials from [all] departments and having responsibility for women in the criminal justice system, did some superb work, has also been disbanded.
"There is now no stated strategy for the future, so we cannot monitor progress against stated objectives."
So what else needs to be done?
There are those who think that only a full implementation of the Corston report will suffice. The senior banker Fiona Cannon, who is diversity and inclusion director for Lloyds Banking Group, is also chair of the Women's Justice Taskforce for the Prison Reform Trust. That group – which includes senior members of the Magistrates' Association, the Association of Chief Police Officers and the probation and prison service – recently called for big women's prisons to be gradually shut down and replaced by effective community sentences that are less disruptive to family life. Improving family relationships cuts re-offending.
The Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick, is of a similar mind. Of Baroness Corston's review he says: "Some of her recommendations have been accepted and implemented – but others, particularly her strategic recommendations for smaller prisons and greater visible senior leadership have not. In my view, without these two strategic changes, further progress will be very limited."
But, in the meantime, much more progress could be made on finding alternatives to prison.
The Ministry of Justice is about to launch a programme with judges and magistrates to explore how that can be done, says Ms Baldwin. Yet the alternatives are already there in places like Brighton Women's Centre, and others across the country, which are running programmes to help women offenders develop the skills they need to avoid a return to crime.
Places like that offer a straightforward choice. As a society we can embrace programmes like the one which enabled Maria Jackson – who faced prison after stealing a lasagne from Marks & Spencer – to escape the cycle of crime through the work of Brighton Women Centre's Inspire project.
"Receiving a community sentence was literally a lifesaver for me," she now says.
"When I first attended the women's centre I was at the end of my tether. I attended an anger-management course and group-therapy sessions for over a year. It helped me to regain my life, develop the confidence I had lost.
"If I had gone to prison it would have created devastation all round. My family would have fallen apart and the experience would have had a lasting impact on the lives of my children."
Or the nation can stick with a system like the one that failed Leanne Gidney.
Leanne was a heroin addict who had attempted to rob a 16-year-old student of the sum of £1. She was 18-years-old and the mother of a two-year-old child. In passing sentence the judge rejected an application for the case to be adjourned so Leanne could be assessed for a drug treatment and testing order. Making no mention of her child he sentenced her to 18 months in prison. Eleven days into her sentence she hanged herself in her cell.
In years to come, says the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick, "we will look back on how we treated these women ... aghast and ashamed".
The future: Changes that need to be made
The Independent's five-month investigation into mothers and the criminal justice system suggests a number of measures that must be taken by the courts, prison service and government ministers.
Change in the courts
The primary focus of this must be the 17,000 children who are each year temporarily orphaned by the imprisonment of their mothers. They are the innocent victims of the British criminal justice system. A Home Office study found that, for 85 per cent of such children, prison was the first time they had been separated from their mothers for any significant length of time.
Their first line of defence ought to be the courts. Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights entitles every individual to a family life. In theory that places judges and magistrates under an obligation to balance the injury done to a child who is deprived of their mother's care against the seriousness of the woman's offence. The first step to achieving that is for those passing sentence to acquire information about any children dependent on the woman they are about to sentence and to find whether those children have special needs or disabilities.
That is not a statutory requirement. But it should be, says the barrister Helena Kennedy QC.
A study of 75 recent cases about to be published by Rona Epstein of Coventry Law School shows that no judge made reference, in their remarks on passing sentence, to balancing the children's needs against the woman's offence. The cases showed "a wide variation in the extent to which the care of dependent children appears to be considered in sentencing," says the report, whose author worked with the charity Women in Prison to access serving prisoners.
"In some cases, the court makes no mention at all of the children," it continues. "In other cases the courts allude to the trauma and misery caused to the children, but blame the defendant, do not consider the rights of the children and do not appear to impose an alternative or reduced sentence." Only in a small minority of cases did the court issue a suspended sentence out of consideration for the welfare of the children.
In some cases judges assume that the probation service will inform them of dependent children if there are any. But in one case where the offender was a single mother and the sole carer of three children under the age of 10, the judge refused to hear a pre-sentence report. In another case magistrates committed a woman to prison for 90 days for council tax arrears without making allowance for the fact that her autistic son had never been separated from his mother and became very distressed.
"In the absence of any guidelines [on how this balance is to be achieved]," the report concludes, "there is an obvious risk of a large degree of inconsistency in judicial attitudes and practice in this area". Procedures must be developed to govern how the balancing exercise is carried out and judges and magistrates should be trained in them.
All this should also apply before courts decide to remand a mother in custody pending a full trial. More than half of the women in UK prisons are there on remand. Though unconvicted they spend on average six weeks in prison. More than 60 per cent of them do not go on to receive a custodial sentence. Yet the lives of their children will have been disrupted. Many will have had to move homes and schools.
"The shorter the sentence, the more strongly the rights of the child should weigh in the balance," Rona Epstein concludes. "If the offence is so minor that it merits a sentence of imprisonment measured in days, how can it outweigh the rights of the child to be cared for by his or her mother?"
Probation officers should be obliged to include in pre-sentencing reports an assessment of the impact custody would have on the children of the family. Good probation workers do that already, but there is no legal requirement for it. There should be. Judges and magistrates should be obliged to see such a report before passing sentence on a mother.
Courts should also give children an opportunity to express their views about the adults who will care for them in their parent's absence.
Change in prisons
Prisons too must make changes. Governors should take more account of the needs and sensitivities of children who come to visit their mothers behind bars. Visiting centres need to be improved to make visits less stressful. Prisoners should not routinely be forbidden from leaving their chair and should be allowed to engage in play with their children in a more relaxed environment. Good family relationships are known to decrease rates of reoffending. Charities like Barnardo's and Nepacs (the North East Prison After Care Society) at Low Newton prison in County Durham offer effective models which need to be spread throughout the prison system.
Prison governors should also make far more routine use of the Release on Temporary Licence system. This allows single mothers who are judged to be no danger to the public to return home for long weekends periodically, to maintain their relationship with their children. Residential stays for older children with their mother in prison could also be piloted.
Change in government
Government ministers can do most to bring change. Were the economy not in such straits the case for closing big women's prisons and opening smaller secure rehabilitative units, as Corston recommended, would be overwhelming to anyone who wants prisons to reduce crime rather than just punish criminals. That should be the long-term goal. But more immediately a number of other changes could be swiftly introduced:
* Policy initiatives to drastically cut the number of mothers sent to jail for minor offences should be accelerated.
* The Government should finance a national network of women's centres to provide alternatives to custody. The existing approach of projects such as Brighton's Inspire must be reinforced – and augmented by Community Payback schemes with unpaid work which is challenging, useful to the public and meaningful to the offender. Victim-awareness activities should be built in, the charity Victim Support has suggested. And more onus should be put on repairing physical damage as part of restorative justice.
* Measurement systems need to be put in place to evaluate the effectiveness of these centres in a way which, as the New Economics Foundation recommends, enables a fuller analysis of the costs and benefits of different decisions.
* A statutory system should be established to inform schools, doctors and social services when a child's parent is sent to prison so that extra support can be given.
* The allowances paid to foster parents should be extended to relatives who look after children while their mother is in jail.
* A Women's Justice Board, modelled on the Youth Justice Board which has produced a 40 per cent drop in the number of young people in custody, should be set up.
* Funding for mother and baby units inside prisons should continue. Programmes like the New Beginnings psychotherapeutic course, which had its funding axed last May, should be reintroduced.
* A body should be established to co-ordinate government strategy across different Whitehall departments.Reuse content