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18 May 2015

No job, no hope – a lack of employment support is undermining the rehabilitation of women offenders

Fewer than one in 10 women released from a prison sentence of under 12 months managed to secure a ‘positive employment outcome’ within a year of release. This is three times worse than the equivalent figure for men, a new briefing published by the Prison Reform Trust reveals.

Welcome moves announced today (Thursday 29 January) by the Justice Minister Simon Hughes to prioritise women’s community provision and improve employment opportunities for women offenders need to be accelerated if women’s offending is to be effectively tackled.

Nearly half (45%) of women leaving prison are reconvicted within one year of release. Employment is vital to reducing risk of reoffending, but women offenders often face additional barriers to gaining work, including a lack of childcare support, lack of qualifications, low pay and the stigma of imprisonment.

Today (Thursday 29 January), Simon Hughes MP is visiting Greater Manchester to see for himself a pioneering new approach to women offenders. Bringing together government, police and voluntary agencies across the region, the approach enables women to be dealt with effectively in the community and aims to reduce the number of women in custody serving short custodial sentences.

During his visit, the Minister will unveil a new open unit at the women’s prison HMP Styal. The new unit will allow women from the region to work in the community, providing a pathway from prison to employment. The Ministry of Justice is set to open another unit at HMP Drake Hall next month.

The briefing, Working it out, launched today by the Prison Reform Trust, highlights the problems faced by women in gaining employment and profiles good practice in custody and the community.

Ex-offenders, both male and female, face a number of barriers to work including mental health needs, low self-esteem and poor educational attainment.

The legal requirement under the 1974 Rehabilitation of Offenders Act to declare unspent (and sometimes spent) convictions if asked by employers can make it extremely difficult for people with a criminal conviction to find a job on release.

A lack of childcare support is often a barrier for many women (and some men) who are primary carers for children. Two-thirds of women in prison have dependent children, and a third of mothers are single parents prior to their imprisonment.

Four in 10 (38%) mothers in custody say their offending is linked to ‘a need to support their children’. Single mothers are more likely to cite a lack of money as the cause of their offending than those who are married.

A lack of women-only unpaid work placements limits the use of appropriate community sentences for women, many of whom have been victims of domestic violence or sexual abuse.

One woman profiled in the briefing highlighted how a lack of suitable childcare arrangements meant that she was unable to comply with the terms of her unpaid work requirement:

“I left earlier than everyone else, I’d leave at 2.30pm to go and pick my children up…I was willing to do weekends, cos normally I don’t have the children at weekends, and I just wanted to get the hours out of the way but it just didn’t work out. That’s how I ended up getting breached.”

The report highlights projects and schemes being delivered in prisons and the community to help get women into employment. Women’s centres, such as The Together Women Project (TWP) in Yorkshire, are uniquely placed to help women offenders and those at risk of offending address barriers to employment and provide the practical help many need to get ‘back on track’.

The briefing calls on the government to develop a strategy to increase employment opportunities and programmes for women with a criminal record, including incentives to encourage businesses to employ women who have been in trouble.

Jenny Earle, Director of the Prison Reform Trust’s Programme to reduce women’s imprisonment said:

“Despite recent reforms, ex-offenders still face significant discrimination by employers, with many routinely excluded if they declare they have a criminal conviction. Much more can and should be done by government, probation and resettlement services and employers to support women into work and financial independence, making them less vulnerable to the abusive relationships that lie behind much of women’s offending.”

Juliet Lyon, Director of the Prison Reform Trust, asked:

“Without a job and somewhere safe to live, how can women break a cycle of debt, drugs and despair?”