Ministers criticised for plans to create 500 new UK prison places for women | Society

Ministers have been criticised for plans to create 500 new prison places for women as part of proposals designed to reduce the numbers in the criminal justice system.

The Ministry of Justice said almost £2m in funding would go to 38 organisations which work on steering women away from crime, such as Shropshire-based Willowdene, and Cheshire Without Abuse.

However, as part of the same proposals the department revealed it would be building 500 new prison places for women, as the planned recruitment of an extra 20,000 police officers is expected to cause a rise in the female prison population.

There are currently around 3,100 women in prison; an additional 500 places is a 15% rise, which is equivalent to 11,000 places for the male population.

Andrew Neilson, director of campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “If the goal is to reduce the number of women entering the criminal justice system, then today’s announcement shows that ministers are looking at the issue down the wrong end of a telescope.

“The touted £2m of investment for community services is dwarfed by the money being sunk into 500 new prison places for women, which in a single year alone will cost more than 10 times what is being offered to those helping vulnerable women before they ever reach custody.”

The MoJ said the new places would be built in existing prisons, would include in-cell showers and allow more women to be held in open conditions.

The department said “some of the new places will also allow women to have overnight visits with their children to prepare for life back home”, a proposal the Howard League said was “concerning”.

In July 2018, the MoJ published a female offenders strategy, which had a central aim of “reducing the female prison population, with fewer offenders sent to custody for short periods”.

The strategy acknowledged that vulnerability could drive offending behaviour, and this was “particularly stark” with female offenders.

Emily Evison, policy officer at the Prison Reform Trust, said: “Reducing the women’s prison population is a central plank of the government’s female offenders strategy.

“Even a temporary rise in women’s prison numbers will be a mark of failure. Instead of planning for a rise, the government should redouble its efforts to ensure women are not being sent to prison to serve pointless short sentences.”

The average annual cost per place in women’s prisons in 2019-20 ranged from £45,565 to £55,411.

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