On 7 November 2013, the Centre for Criminology had the privilege of hosting Dame Elish Angiolini and Professor Loraine Gelsthorpe for a seminar entitled, “The Imprisonment of Women Offenders – A Scottish Perspective.”  Dame Elish first shared her insights as Chair of the Commission on Women Offenders, which researched and reported on women in the Scottish criminal justice system from 2011-2012.  The overarching purpose of the Commission’s work was to develop recommendations to improve outcomes, reduce recidivism, and stem the increasing imprisonment rates among female offenders.

At the outset of her talk, Dame Elish noted that, at the time the Commission undertook its work, the number of women in Scottish prisons was double what it was ten years prior, though crime in Scotland was at a 39-year low.  She asserted that the criminal justice system and its associated processes have been geared toward young, male offenders, but that this one-size-fits-all approach was inadequate to address the issues commonly faced by female offenders.  As a result, the system set women up to fail and fostered a “revolving door” through which women exited and re-entered prison within a short period of time.  This pattern was evidenced by the high proportion of prisoners on remand within the total female prison population.

She went on to describe common characteristics and issues among female offenders in Scotland.  The vast majority of crimes committed by these women are acquisitive in nature and many are related to underlying mental health problems, such as addiction.  Some 85 percent of female prisoners in Scotland suffer from mental health problems, and prison officers are not properly equipped to deal with the challenges associated with this population.  Moreover, Dame Elish found intense self-loathing to be a common experience among female offenders.

Dame Elish emphasized the need for a collective community justice system and called for the development of viable alternatives to prosecution and custody.  Previously, efforts to offer alternatives were done in a haphazard manner, only funded for short periods of time, and run by different charities that competed with each other for funding (rather than collaborating on initiatives).  In addition to this “noisy” landscape, challenges included the common perception among politicians that alternatives were “soft” and the lack of an evidence base indicating the effectiveness of various measures.

In addition, Dame Elish called for the creation of a mentoring service for women as they exit prison and rejoin the community, as this is a time at which they are particularly vulnerable.  She also believes that criminal justice social workers should have a strong voice and significant role in a system adapted to the needs of female offenders.  In light of the Commission’s work, she concluded that if the criminal justice system is redesigned to address the particular issues facing women offenders, then their behaviour can be changed and offending patterns mitigated.

Next, we heard from Professor Gelsthorpe.  She emphasized the importance of the Commission’s report and praised its attention to accountability, vision beyond the prison, and acknowledgement that its proposals for women are potentially relevant to men as well.  She noted the Scottish government’s positive response to the report, as it accepted 33 of the report’s 37 recommendations.  As a result, a prison with an extremely high rate of suicide will be closed and a new, customized prison for female offenders will be built in Edinburgh.  In addition, the government will invest in mental health services.

However, Professor Gelsthorpe questioned whether governmental responses to the report are overly concerned with prisons themselves.  She noted that the government invested a great deal in bricks and mortar, which may render sentencing women offenders to time in prison a more attractive option than alternatives.  Nevertheless, there is cause for optimism because, on November 3rd, the government agreed to invest in community centres for women.

Professor Gelsthorpe then described the significant legislative and judicial developments over the past decade in England and Wales that have focused on improving the wellbeing of women.  For example, the Equality Act of 2006 requires the government to consider gender impact for all new policies.  Also in 2006, the Ministry of Justice provided funding for the Together Women Project, which established “one-stop shop” community centres at which women could access a variety of services.

Though a great deal of recent progress has been made, many challenges still exist.  For instance, the Criminal Justice Act of 2003 made it difficult to avoid imprisonment for a breach of community penalties.  Also, since 2011, the government has only provided one-year funding for the community centres, putting them in a precarious financial situation.  There is also a need for research on the impact of the centres on sentencing and outcomes for female offenders, although a proper framework for research and evaluation is lacking.  Professor Gelsthorpe pointed out that, unfortunately, future progress on the issues and challenges facing women offenders largely depends upon the “politics and personalities” in government.