Camouflage is an outdoor game, something like a cross between hide and seek and grandmother’s footsteps, which involves hiding behind anything you can find or lying as still as you can in long grass before dashing to reach base. Luckily it was a fine dry day, and I was dressed for an outdoor lunch; anyway, one should expect to get a bit muddy if visiting an organisation called the Wilderness Foundation. I’d been before, for a general look round, but returned to join a session of the programme for women on probation, part of the Essex Women’s Support Service run by Open Road for Essex CRC. The principle behind the programme is that simply being outdoors has a positive impact on mental health, with the additional benefit of activities that build confidence, in a safe and (normally) all-female environment. It’s the ideal situation in which to talk through problems and come to terms with past offending. For me to be able to chat to these women as we sat round their campfire eating lunch that they’d just cooked was a real privilege.
Just why there should be a special programme for women offenders is a question that was first raised for me by the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, Bishop of Gloucester, writing in The Times in September 2018 to explain why she was leading a debate in the House of Lords calling for a change to the way women are sentenced. As a magistrate, I should have read the Equal Treatment Bench Book more carefully, and remembered the simple rule, that treating people equally does not mean treating them the same. Numerous studies have shown that, compared to men, women suffer disproportionately by being sent to prison. The Bench Book tells us that ‘although women are less than 5% of those in prison, they account for over 25% of self-harm incidents, an indication of the traumatic impact of imprisonment on many.’ Women are less likely than men to find employment on release from prison, and more likely to lose their accommodation; even more damaging, because the impact is wider, if they have children they are likely to be taken into care. 84% of women in prison have committed non-violent crimes, and are often themselves the victims of crimes more serious than those they have committed; their offending is frequently the result of coercion by abusive partners. The closing words of Mim Skinner’s excellent book Jailbirds sum up the situation simply and clearly: ‘It is almost never beneficial to imprison women’.
The issues have been widely discussed since the publication of the landmark Corston Report, published in 2007, and although some progress has been made in parts of the country, much remains to be done. An important step was taken in Essex in September with the setting up of the Women’s Service Action Team (WSAT) under the chairmanship of Alex Osler, Director of Essex CRC. This brings together representatives of the various agencies who are working with women offenders in Essex, Southend and Thurrock, with the aim of increasing the provision of community-based alternatives to custody and reducing reoffending. Experience in other localities, notably Greater Manchester, has shown that this ‘Whole System Approach’ to tackling offending is extremely effective.
A key component of the Whole System Approach is the provision of women’s centres hosting a range of services and activities. Good examples can be found in this region in Northampton and Cambridge, but until now the size and geography of Essex has made it seem too difficult to set one up here: but now one has been opened in Harlow by Safer Places – the Rosie Centre – that will not only provide for the immediate area but could also serve as a model for similar centres in other parts of the county. They are quite rightly very excited about the potential of this venture.
Their experience will feed into the conference that I’ve been working on with the WSAT and the national charity Clinks that will be held in March 2020. This will explore all aspects of provision for female offenders, looking at examples of current good practice in Essex and beyond, and seeing what can be done to improve the situation in the future, whether it’s more and improved community programmes, more women’s centres, or (and this is so often the crucial factor) suitable accommodation for vulnerable women who are at risk of offending or reoffending. I feel very much more hopeful than I did a year ago.