Women make up 5% of the prison population and 15% of Probation's caseload. They tend to service shorter sentences for lower risk crimes and have a lower re-offending rate than men - especially if they receive the right support on release. However, because their sentence lengths are short and risk levels lower there is very little specific statutory support available to them. In 2011, over 5,000 women were released without supervision or support. Yet female offender needs are complex and their risk of vulnerability high:
- Homelessness - around 40% of release women will have no accommodation to go to.
- Due to fewer number of female prisons, many are held a long way from home.
- Victimisation - at least 50% of female prisoners have been victims of domestic abuse.
- Mental health needs - 70% of women prisoners suffer two or more diagnosable mental health problems.
- Substance abuse - nearly 60% of female prisoners had used drugs daily in the six months before prison.
- Childcare concerns and rising unemployment exacerbate these issues for women.
The Call Centre
In 2011 we lanched the first freephone advice line for female offenders operating from HMP Send, Surrey. Known as The Call Centre, it is now connected to HMP Downview, HMP Holloway, HMP Eastwood Park and HMP Styal. Our aim is to get the centre connected to all 13 womens prisons across the country.
The Call Centre aims to offer an easily accessible signposting service to women to all the different services available to them. It can be confusing for women who do not know about them and increases the level of stress they encounter during their sentences. The Call Centre is staffed by female serving prisoners who train to become qualified advice workers through the project.
To date, typical calls received by our female advisors address concerns around the following issues:
- Housing - finding a home allowing them to escape violent partners
- Names and contact details of drug and alcohol support services in their local area
- Concerns around debt issues
- Advice around finding employment with a criminal record, including how to start up businesses
- How to access benefits e.g. community care grants and how to search for employment whilst on benefits
- Legal and family issues such as regaining access to children in care or re-establishing primary care of their children
In response our caseworkers are able to signpost the women to relevant services within the prison and in the community, advise on the remit of each one, advise on timescales for applications for services such as housing and - importantly - offer reassurance to vulnerable women having a stressful time in custody.
Meet at the Gates for female prison leavers
This service supports vulnerable female prison leavers returning to London. Led by female ex-offenders, women are literally met when they are released from prison and we target those serving less than 12 months. In particular we prioritise:
- Women with children
- Women with complex needs
- Women who are identified as vulnerable
- Women who are sex workers
The nature and length of the support is entirely client-needs driven. Key support includes finding safe accommodation, education, training, employment and support re-establishing contacts with friends and family. The team principally supports women returning to London from HMP Send, HMP Downview and HMP Bronzefield.
The project is delivered by specially trained female ex-offenders who have first-hand experience of rebuilding their lives in the community.
Vocational Training in HMP Downview
HMP Downview is a closed category prison for women located in Surrey. Our Peer Advice Project trains women serving in this prison to become qualified advice workers supporting their fellow prisoners with essential information, advice and guidance on resettlement services. They provide advice on similar issues to those of the Call Centre, relieving uncertainty amongst the women serving and better equipping them to deal with challenges of life in the community.