Women in prison: New centre hopes to cut reoffending

By Emilia Belli
BBC News

Danielle John
Image caption,
Danielle believes she turned her life around with the help of a probation officer

A new centre to help women who have committed low-level crimes instead of serving a prison sentence is to open.

The Residential Women's Centre in Swansea has 12 beds and will help women who have experienced addiction, domestic abuse and trauma.

The centre is part of a UK-first pilot to cut the number of women being sent to prison and will open in 2024.

Labour called on the UK government to "pick up the pace" of its female offenders strategy.

The centre will be targeted at women who would have otherwise been handed sentences of a year or less.

About 60% of women in custody in the UK have experienced domestic abuse, while 50% have problems with addiction.

These factors can lead to low-level crimes among female offenders, including shoplifting, non-payment of fines and drug and alcohol offences.

Danielle John, 40, went to prison twice after becoming addicted to crack cocaine.

Before that, she had multiple miscarriages, a difficult childhood and other trauma, which left her feeling suicidal.

She began shoplifting to fund her addiction after losing her job, home, relationship and benefits after missing an appointment.

After being prosecuted and convicted, she was sent to HMP Eastwood Park in South Gloucestershire twice, initially for two months, and then for five months.

She said: "My mental health was really low, I think I would have benefited definitely from having community support and professional help rather than being sent to prison.

Image caption,
The residential centre in Swansea is awaiting planning permission

"My core issue was addiction. Because I was in prison for such a short time, I couldn't actually address any of my issues.

"You just end up sitting there doing nothing for a few months and coming out in the same predicament."

On release, she returned to using drugs until a probation worker persuaded her to take part in community programmes.

Danielle is now studying for a degree and works with offenders, supporting and rehabilitating them, as well as working as a personal wellbeing coach with the St Giles Trust Cymru charity.

She said she supported the Swansea pilot scheme and believed there were not enough women's community services to help ex-offenders move on with their lives after prison.

There are no female prisons in Wales. Research by Cardiff University showed 218 Welsh women were sent to prisons in England in 2021.

Women from north Wales are likely to go to HMP Styal near Manchester, while women from south and west Wales tend go to HMP Eastwood Park in South Gloucestershire.

The new £10m residential centre in Swansea is aiming to help up to 50 women a year from the area.

Women will be able to live there for up to 12 weeks as part of community sentence, allowing them to stay near families and support networks.

Offenders not required to live there will also be able to access services provided by the centre, staffed by the probation service.

Image caption,
Emma Jones runs a community hub in Swansea, which works with female offenders

Emma Jones runs Include, a community hub which already works with female offenders in Swansea.

She said she believed putting women in prison for short sentences was like "pressing the restart button" on rehabilitation and makes it harder to break the cycles of offending.

The new centre will include therapy, counselling and addiction support, as well as help with employability and parenting skills.

"The exciting thing about the residential women's centre is that it will force partnership working in one place," said Ms Jones.

The centre will have a strict no drugs and alcohol policy.

The site is subject to planning permission and once opened will run as a pilot for five years.

'Make our streets safer'

UK government minister Victoria Atkins MP said she would watch the pilot's findings "with enormous interest".

As the minister responsible for prisons in the Ministry of Justice, she said reoffending rates for female prisoners are high and believed the Swansea pilot made sense for the public purse.

"If if a woman is at the start of her offending career, where if we can intervene that bit earlier, give her some support that she needs, then that will help make our streets safer," she said.

She added she "recognised" concerns about sending Welsh women to prison for short sentences.

Labour's Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Jo Stevens, welcomed the announcement of the centre and called on the UK government to "stop dithering and pick up the pace" in delivering its female offenders plan.

Ms Stevens said vulnerable women were an "afterthought" for UK government and accused it of not having its priorities right.

She added: "Labour have long argued for facilities for vulnerable women with complex needs who would otherwise be sentenced to custody.

"These women need a safe and secure facility that is fit for purpose, while allowing them to maintain contact with their families, particularly children."

However Rhys ab Owen MS, the justice spokesperson for Plaid Cymru, questioned why the pilot could not be extended further.

"We've been waiting a long time for the announcement so it's a good thing we now know when it will start," he said.

"It is concerning that the pilot won't start until 2024 and a five-year pilot which only includes women from the Swansea area.

"There is a real concern about women from the rest of Wales, as the numbers of women from Wales being sent to prison are increasing year on year.

"We need things in place to help women across the whole of Wales."