Women in Prison– Breaking the Cycle

Forensic Mental Health, Holistic Recovery

At the start of 2021, there were approximately 3,100 women in prison in the UK.  

Ministers have been criticised recently, for including plans to create 500 new spaces for women in prisons in their proposals that supposedly aim to reduce the number of women being sent to prison every year.  

In reality, the world population of women in prison is increasing and evidence points to increased rates of mental health problems too. 

Women in prison 

While there are signs of progress, more work is needed to improve outcomes for women in the criminal justice system. 

There are notable gender differences too: 

  • Women are much more likely than men to self-harm or commit suicide whilst in prison.  
  • More women are sent to prison to serve a sentence for theft than for violence against the person, robbery, sexual offences, drugs, and motoring offences combined. 
  • Women in prison are highly likely to be victims as well as offenders. Over half the women in prison report having suffered domestic violence with 53% of women reporting having experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse as a child. 
  • Many of them have dependent children – an estimated 17,000 children are affected by maternal imprisonment every year. 

There is international recognition that women in prison are very vulnerable. Mental ill-health, substance misuse and post-traumatic stress disorder are seen frequently, alongside illiteracy, undiagnosed autism and learning disabilities.  

A recent report states that “every part of the justice system fails mentally ill people”. An incredible 70% of UK women in prison have a mental health issue. Worse still, women have been kept in prison as “a place of safety” if experiencing mental health issues while waiting for a suitable alternative. 

Why women end up in prison in the first place 

Many women enter the criminal justice system with a history of emotional, physical or sexual abuse. They have survived difficult childhoods as well as struggles with poverty, poor mental health, learning difficulties and substance abuse.  

As mentioned above, their crimes are often non-violent and in many cases are committed out of a need for survival. Prisons are designed to punish the prisoner, protect the public and rehabilitate the offender. 

But are these short stays in prison for women working? 

Why women end up back in prison 

Going home, women have many obstacles to face. Some women have to choose between homelessness or going back to live with an abusive partner. In this situation, employment isn’t high on the list of priorities. 

In fact, women released from prison are almost three times less likely to be employed on release than men leaving jail. This is often because they are the sole carer of children. Being a single mother with little support and unable to pay childcare costs leads to a vicious cycle back into crime again. 

Living in poverty means many women struggle to feed themselves and their children. 3 out of 5 women re-offend – typically the crime is theft rather than a violent offence. The result is a conviction and a short prison sentence, leaving no time for rehabilitation, education or up-levelling of skills. The cycle continues. 

Is a Halfway House the solution? 

A halfway house is a residential facility where people leaving prison are required to live before being fully released into the community. Individuals live in a group environment and have specific rules and requirements. These include attending programmes, curfews and maintaining a job.  

But, a halfway house does not offer consistent structured strategies for acquiring the skills women need to live independently. There are no individualised packages of support. It is simply temporary accommodation. 

So, if a halfway house isn’t the best solution then what is? 

Bridge Support 

Here at Bridge, we support ex-offenders to live independently, protecting the public and providing low-cost mental health care. We offer support and education on an individualised basis. Our unique approach starts with building a relationship with the person before they are even released from prison. 

Breaking the cycle 

We want to provide a better service for women, based on our experience of delivering Tilt for men. Tilt is a residential facility with proven recovery pathways that provide support for male ex-offenders working towards independent living in the community. Compared to the national figure of 50% reoffending rate, 95% of people who pass through the Tilt project do not re-offend, while 50% go on to live completely independent lives. 

When it comes to women offenders, we are proposing a model that doesn’t yet exist. A model that will help women and their specific needs. 

Tilt for women 

Crisis houses offer intensive, short-term support to help manage a mental health crisis in a residential setting, rather than in a hospital. They usually offer 24-hour care in a homelike environment with a range of interventions. 

Tilt for women is a modified version of this model and will include: 

  • A 12 week program for women coming out of prison. 
  • Early release from prison with the condition that they go through the program. 
  • Building skills to help them integrate back into society and not return to prison. 

We will take a holistic approach based on the Biopsychosocial theory. 

All aspects of a woman’s well-being will be considered including her physical and mental wellbeing, self-esteem and her relationships with family and children and will be based upon trauma-informed care. The women will be housed in an environment with the fewest restrictions possible. There will be support available to build the skills needed for a successful integration back into society, including housing, financial management, education and employment. 

The earlier we meet prisoners who will enter the program, the better. We like to get to know the individual as early in the assessment process as possible to enable us to provide a bespoke care and support plan. This provides a smoother transition between prison and Tilt and allows for a successful transition between Tilt and the community. 

You can learn more about our current Tilt Project here. 

Further reading 

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