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Pressure Builds to Close U.K. Women's Prisons

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Following the deaths of six women in one year at a women's prison in England, pressure has been building to close the facilities. Last week an independent commission echoed a reform group's critical report in August.

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Following the deaths of six women in one year at a women's prison in England, pressure has been building to close the facilities. Last week an independent commission echoed a reform group's critical report in August.
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Pauline Campbell protests

(WOMENSENEWS)--Sarah Campbell was, at 18, the youngest of six women who died between August 2002 and August 2003 at Her Majesty's Prison Styal, a women's prison in Cheshire in Northwest England.

"The inquest jury said a 'failure in the duty of care' contributed to Sarah's death, and that there were 'avoidable delays' before the prison summoned an ambulance as she lay dying in a cell in the segregation, or punishment, block," Pauline Campbell, Sarah's mother, told Women's eNews.

Campbell said her daughter took pills, then informed prison staff what she had done, a clear indication that she was seeking help, not death. But the staff left her unattended in her locked cell, where she vomited blood; there was an argument between a nurse and a guard about whose job it was to call for an ambulance. When the ambulance arrived, it was delayed at the gate for eight minutes before being allowed in to the prison.

"My only child died several hours later in hospital without regaining consciousness," Campbell said.

The cause of death, according to an inquest jury, was prescription anti-depressant drug poisoning. Doctors had diagnosed Sarah with clinical depression at age 15 and she had a history of drug use.

Campbell says the Home Office--which oversees prisons and criminal prosecutions in Britain--did not formally accept responsibility for her daughter's death until September 2006, nearly four years later, and has never apologized. Campbell has responded by throwing herself into a campaign to improve conditions for women in prison.

She is currently awaiting trial for criminal charge of aggravated trespassing outside Eastwood Park women's prison in Gloucestershire to protest the death of Caroline Powell, another female prisoner and mother of five whose death has also drawn criticism over how female offenders are treated in British prisons.

Closures Recommended

On March 13 a government report recommended that most, if not all, of the country's 17 existing women's prisons should be shut down in the next decade or converted into jails for men. The report, conducted for the Home Office by Baroness Corston, a member of the Labour Party from the House of Lords, was commissioned after the apparent suicides of six women, including Sarah Campbell, at Styal Prison. It recommends phasing out larger facilities by building small prison units for female offenders.

"The question then is whether anything from it will be implemented," said Cathy Stancer, a member of Women in Prison, a London-based advocacy group, who notes that more money is still being poured into prison facilities and that only 1 percent of the amount being spent on prisons is going on community efforts. "It would be very sad if it went the way of many of these reviews and just became another report in the archives."

Campbell agreed. "The catalog of errors leading to my daughter's death in the 'care' of the state must never again be allowed to happen," she said. "Tragically, a further 34 women prisoners have died from self-inflicted injuries in jails in England since Sarah's death."

About 4,300 women are jailed in England and Wales, often on petty charges, and many have been victims of crime or abuse. Critics of the prison system say recidivism could be reduced if more women received treatment and greater support outside prison.

Last week's report largely echoes an August 2006 report by the London-based Howard League for Penal Reform, one of the nation's main prison reform organizations.

'Traditional Prison Doesn't Work'

Frances Cook

"For women who offend, traditional prison simply doesn't work," said Frances Crook, director of the Howard League.

The Howard League claims community programs are much more successful at reducing recidivism rates. Research indicates that 64 percent of female prisoners are convicted again within two years of release, versus 47 percent for those given a community sentence. Community programs also cost less, between $4,000 and $6,000 of taxpayers' money a year for each offender versus $80,000 for a prison inmate.

Crook said the Howard League report found that 55 percent of all self-harm incidents in jails are committed by women, who are only 6 percent of the prison population. "If the government ignores the findings of the Corston Report and fails to take radical action it will be held accountable for the deaths and injuries of women in prison for years to come," she said.

Because of the small number of women's prisons--a total of 17, compared with 141 for men--female prisoners are also twice as likely as men to be held more than 50 miles from home, reducing access for families.

The push to refer female offenders to community programs is joined by other groups working with vulnerable women, including Bristol-based Women's Aid and Women in Prison and the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, a London charity.

A Best-Practice Model

The Asha Women's Centre in Worcester in the West Midlands has been held up by both campaign groups and government reports as an example of best practice.

Chris Cawthorne, a director of the Asha Women's Centre who took part in Baroness Corston's research, said that she was "pleasantly surprised" by the March report and was hopeful that it could result in increasing support for organizations like hers, which has an annual budget of about $400,000.

"The center is still dependent on fundraising from the larger charities and grant-making trusts, and there's no indication yet that this will definitely change and become more stable," she said. "We wouldn't want to be too dependent on central government funding, though. We're the experts on working with women, and we wouldn't want to be too controlled by them."

Annie, a worker at the Asha Women's Centre, explains, "What we do is tailored to the individual." The center does not reveal the last names of its employees because they deal with sensitive issues. "We don't expect earth-shattering results. The core program starts with an introductory interview and personal plan, then signposting to other agencies for issues such as debt, domestic violence and drug advice. Then we offer education and development, and support from the staff and volunteers, whether with coursework or other issues."

But the main benefit, Annie emphasizes, is personal attention. "For many women it's not necessarily the courses that make the most difference. It's the fact that often this is the first time they've had the opportunity to sit down and think about themselves and their lives; what problems they might have and why, and what they can do about them. Often no one else has ever really listened to them before."

"We had one woman who came in three years ago in a right mess," Annie recalls. "She had multiple drug and court problems. But she kept coming back and now she has a decent house, a great relationship with her kids, and she's just about to start volunteer training with the drug rehabilitation program which helped her. She's done it herself; we just gave her support when she needed it."

Sarah Irving is a freelance writer based in Manchester, Britain. Her work can be found at http://www.freelancefusion.com/uk/sarahirving.

For more information:

Howard League for Penal Reform:
http://www.howardleague.org/

Women in Prison:
http://www.womeninprison.org.uk/

National Association of Probation Officers:
http://www.napo.org.uk/