The charity helping to change the lives of female offenders

Most women in prison have been the victim of domestic violence or sexual assault

By Natalie Bloomer

Every year around 12,000 women in the UK are sent to prison. More than half of those will have experienced domestic violence or sexual abuse and many will have been sentenced for non-violent offences. In 2019 for example, 30 per cent of all female convictions were for TV licence evasion. 

Mental health problems such as anxiety and self-harming are also more prevalent among women offenders with them accounting for 17 per cent of all incidents of self-harm in prisons even though just five per cent of the prison population is female. 

A strategy for how to deal with female offenders was published by the Ministry of Justice in 2018. It set out three priorities, they were: 

  • Earlier intervention

  • An emphasis on community-based solutions

  • An aim to make custodial sentences as effective and decent as possible

The strategy recognises that reoffending outcomes are better when women can be supported in the community and that community orders can be used to support women to find employment and accommodation and help address the underlying causes of offending such as substance misuse.

This is something the Northamptonshire charity C2C knows only too well. The organisation delivers community orders as an alternative to custodial sentences and supports scores of women every year.  The orders, which are set by a judge, can include requirements to complete rehabilitation activities, mental health treatment and unpaid work (also known as community payback).

However, last month the charity was informed that after 7 years it has lost the contract from the National Probation Service to continue the work meaning they will be down by £60,000 of funding a year. 

Sam Bignell fell into the criminal justice system while in an abusive relationship. She says the help and support she received from C2C changed her life. 

“I would never have had the courage to leave that relationship without the support I had, I only got into trouble in the first place because of that relationship but I would have stayed in it without the right help. It’s done wonderful things for me and so many others like me.”

Sam now works with C2C to support other women and says it would be devastating if they were unable to continue offering the same level of support.

“We want to shout about this work from the rooftops because we know what a difference it does, we want to break the cycle of reoffending for these women.”

The CEO of C2C Angie Kennedy says there will be a limit to the amount of help they can offer women without the current level of funding. 

“We currently provide on-going support for finance & debt, emotional and mental health, family, dependencies, accommodation, steps towards employment and training, and provide a safe space for women. We’re still waiting to hear from the Ministry of Justice about what happens next now that we haven’t got the contract to continue.”

Between April and June 2016 70.7% of women and 62.9% of men released from custody following a short custodial sentence of less than 12 months reoffended within a year. The government’s Female Offender Strategy says short custodial sentences are less effective in reducing reoffending than community orders.

“Short sentences generate churn which is a major driver of instability in our prisons and they do not provide sufficient time for rehabilitative activity. The impact on women, many of whom are sentenced for non-violent, low level but persistent offences, often for short periods of time, is particularly significant.”

It also says:

“The third sector network of women’s services, such as women’s centres, play an important role in supporting us to meet women’s needs, minimise disruption to families and more effectively maintain female offenders within their community as productive citizens, at less cost to government and greater benefit to themselves and society.”

Despite this, the Ministry of Justice has announced it will be building 500 additional prison places for women. The news was criticised by the Howard League for Penal Reform which has now set up a campaign to stop the plans. The organisation’s CEO France Crook branded the proposals a waste of public money.

“Expanding women’s prisons runs contrary to the government’s own published policy of reducing the use of prison for women and stemming the flow of women into the toxic criminal justice system,” Crook said.

“We need to stop this. We need to come together to stop this profligate waste of public money on the wrong policy. Money should go to women’s centres and housing and work and mental health support in the community.”

The evidence shows that working with women to tackle the problems that lead them to crime in the first place is a more effective way of stopping reoffending. C2C is now concerned that without the correct funding in place, this will become harder to achieve.

Note: C2C has funded a series of journalism workshops NN Journal is running for young people in Northamptonshire. This has no impact on the reporting of this story.