Two important St Giles Trust services helping some of the most vulnerable women in society report seeing an increasing number of clients.
As International Women’s Day is celebrated (8 March 2012), nearly 330 female prison leavers have been helped by our WIRE team over the past two years. Set up in response to Baroness Corston's 2007 report on women in the criminal justice system, it offers intensive, one-to-one resettlement support for women leaving prison who are returning to London.
Overwhelmingly, the women helped by WIRE have served short sentences –sometimes as little as four weeks – and had their lives severely disrupted as a result. Many of them are homeless upon release, have issues such as drug, alcohol and mental health problems driving their offending and experienced abuse and domestic violence.
The team report that as many as 90% of the women leaving one London prison they work with has a drug problem.
Our WIRE caseworkers will meet women from the moment they are released from prison, ensure they have somewhere to stay, help get their benefits set up, advocate on their behalf with other agencies and signpost them to services offering help with training and employment once their lives are stabilised.
Given the chaotic nature of the lives the women lead, WIRE offer their clients ongoing support to help them maintain their tenancies and stay engaged with services designed to support them such as substance misuse agencies, mental health services and the Probation Service.
The team reports that finding suitable housing for the women is the biggest challenge they face. Many of the women do not qualify for local authority housing yet are too vulnerable to manage a private rented tenancy. The team are left to pick up the pieces by trying to access a limited number of specialist supported housing projects or intensively handholding their clients through the process of a private rented tenancy with an understanding landlord.
Back behind bars, exciting developments are underway at St Giles Trust’s Call Centre in HMP Send – the first ever service of this kind – as it will soon connect with two further female prisons: HMP Newhall and HMP Ashkam Grange. The Call Centre trains female prisoners in HMP Send to offer over the phone, confidential support to women in other prisons connected to it. Currently, these are HMP Downview, HMP Holloway and HMP Eastwood Park.
Women in prisons connected to the Call Centre can access it via a secure phone line and talk in confidence to a fellow serving prisoner who is either qualified or training to qualify as an advice worker. Help is available on a wide range of issues including housing, accessing training and employment, and information on services helping with issues such as domestic violence and substance misuse.
Since its start in September 2010, nearly 400 women have contacted the centre and 38 women working in it have successfully qualified as Level 3 Information, Advice and Guidance workers. For many of these women it is the first qualification they have gained.
62% of women serving less than 12 months re-offend within one year of release from prison. A study by Oxford University found that women prisoners were five times more likely to have a mental health problem compared to the general population. 37% of women in prison have attempted suicide and there were 56 self inflicted deaths of women prisoners between 2002 and 2007.