Female prisoners to serve sentences 'nearer families'

Women working at computers in HMP Styal
Image caption Women could be offered more employment support under the plans

Female prisoners in England and Wales will serve their sentences nearer to where they live in a bid to cut reoffending, ministers have said.

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) said it wanted female inmates to maintain family relationships and improve their job prospects before leaving jail.

Labour said the scarcity of women's prisons made the announcement "almost meaningless".

The plans come after MPs accused ministers of ignoring female prisoners.

'Pernicious cycle'

The Justice Select Committee said in July that the government's probation reforms had been designed with "male offenders in mind" and treated women as "an afterthought".

But Lord McNally, the Justice Minister, said he wanted to end female reoffending for good.

"When a female offender walks out of the prison gates, I want to make sure she never returns," he said.

"Keeping female prisoners as close as possible to their homes, and importantly their children, is vital if we are to help them break the pernicious cycle of re-offending.

"And providing at least a year of support in the community - alongside the means to find employment on release - will give them the best possible chance to live productive, law abiding lives."

There are 13 female prisons in England and Wales but at the moment, the 4,000 women in custody have no guarantee of being sent to jails near their homes.

This means that mothers are separated from their children, and are unable to receive family visits.

An MoJ spokesman said all the women's jails in England and Wales would become so-called "resettlement prisons" - meaning that offenders serve their sentences as close to home as possible.

Parent-child bond

Lord McNally also announced plans to pilot an "open unit" next year at HMP Styal, a jail in Cheshire for women and young offenders.

The Ministry of Justice said the prison was chosen because of the good work it already does "helping women into jobs".

One inmate, Stella, said serving her sentence at the jail allowed her to gain qualifications and be nearer to her family.

"It's really important to keep the bond with the child. That's the hardest thing about being in jail - being separated from your child."

The MoJ said it was considering opening a "commercial-run business" at Styal to provide training and employment opportunities for the women.

It said similar ventures in Cardiff and Surrey's High Down men's prisons, which have restaurants open to the public but are run by prisoners, had been a success.

But Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: "Trying to improve women's imprisonment would be a waste when the best way to reduce women's offending is to invest in treatment for addictions, mental healthcare, training for work and safe housing away from domestic violence and abuse."

The government said it acknowledged many women who committed crime were themselves victims of domestic and sexual violence.

It points to statistics suggesting 53% report being abused as children, while 49% suffer from anxiety and depression.

The MoJ said it wanted to create new "personality disorder treatment services" for female prisoners by working with the NHS.

Labour called on the government to avoid custodial sentences for "low-level offences".

"The public want confidence that the criminal justice system is effectively punishing and reforming all those found guilty of committing crimes," said shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan.

"But this government must do much more to stop women offending in the first place."

He added: "With only a small number of scattered women's prisons, the concept of local resettlement is almost meaningless."

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