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12 June 2013

Soroptimists call for renewed efforts to reduce the unnecessary imprisonment of Welsh women

Soroptimist (UK), in partnership with the Prison Reform Trust, will today (Wednesday 15th May 2013) launch an action pack at a reception at the Pierhead in Cardiff to support their initiative to reduce women’s imprisonment across the UK.

More than eight out of ten of sentenced women entering prison have been convicted of non-violent offences. Many have young children. Many have themselves been the victims of serious crime, including domestic violence, sexual abuse and rape.


The launch will focus attention on developments in Wales as Ministry of Justice figures show that:

  • Women in Wales accounted for 6.3% (or 1 in 16) of all women sentenced to custody in England and Wales in 2011
  • Between 2009-2011, although there was a 6% reduction in the number of women sentenced by Welsh courts (from 20,910 to 19,628), the total number of custodial sentences given to women increased (also by 6%, from 476 to 506) – the same was not true for England
  • Between 2009-2011, nearly nine in ten of the women sentenced to custody by Welsh courts (86% or 1,280 out of 1,493) had committed non-violent offences such as theft and handling, motoring, criminal damage and drug offences – for men the proportion was 78%.
  • Theft and handling (for instance shoplifting) accounted for more than a third (35%) of all custodial sentences handed down to women in Wales – for men this type of offence accounted for 18% of custodial sentences.
  • The number of women sentenced to custody in the Dyfed Powys area almost doubled between 2009-2011 (from 31 to 58 women). South Wales also saw an increase of 13% over the same period, from 271 to 306 women. However, both North Wales and Gwent recorded reductions in the number of women sentenced to custody (of 28% and 5% respectively).
  • The reconviction rates for women serving sentences of less than 12 months in the prisons that hold the majority of Welsh women offenders, released in the year to June 2011, were 64.9% in HMP Eastwood Park and 58.2% in HMP Styal.

(Source: Ministry of Justice Analytical Services)

In September 2012 there were 247 women in prison in England with home addresses in Wales (up from 183 in September 2006). Half of them were in Eastwood Park prison near Bristol, over a quarter were in London prisons, 10% were in Styal prison in Cheshire and 9% at HMP Drake Hall in Staffordshire.

The National Offender Management Service (NOMS) Cymru has committed to reducing the number of women from Wales going to prison by providing early diversion opportunities, improving community sentencing options and increasing support to enable women to address the problems that have got them into trouble in the first place.

The Soroptimist UK Programme Action Committee resolved to mount a campaign to reduce women’s imprisonment across the UK working in partnership with the Prison Reform Trust. This ties in with their flagship project Violence Against Women – Stop it Now, on which a detailed analysis of the work done, club by club, is presented annually to Ministers in Westminster.

Soroptimist International is an organisation that works to improve the lives of women and girls worldwide. It has a membership of approximately 90,000 women in over 3,000 clubs in 127 countries and it is the only women’s service organisation with general consultative status at the United Nations.

This innovative partnership is timely. The UK government has recently published a strategy on women’s justice and announced the establishment of an advisory board, chaired by the Justice Minister Helen Grant MP, to help shape future policy and drive through reform. The Scottish government has committed to transforming women’s justice in Scotland and there are proposals in Northern Ireland for improved provision for female offenders.

In addition, the Welsh government has recently consulted on proposals aimed at ending violence against women and domestic abuse. Over half the women in prison report having suffered domestic violence and one in three sexual abuse.

Approximately 13,500 women are sent to prison each year in the UK, and the number of women in prison has increased significantly over the past decade. This is despite a widespread consensus, based on evidence, that community solutions that address the causes of women’s offending are more effective than prison in reducing crime and minimising the cost to society. Because women are such a small minority of the prison population (5%) they are easily overlooked and are generally given short shrift in criminal justice policy, planning, prison systems and service delivery.

More than eight out of ten of sentenced women entering prison have been convicted of non-violent offences. Many have young children. Many have themselves been the victims of serious crime, including domestic violence, sexual abuse and rape.

Mental health problems, drug and alcohol addiction and self-harm are also very common. In the 12 months ending June 2012, women accounted for 31% of all self-harm incidents in prison in England and Wales despite representing only 5% of the prison population.

The event in Cardiff will bring together Assembly Members, policymakers, criminal justice practitioners and representatives from Soroptimist clubs across Wales to raise awareness of women’s justice reform and support members to take action locally.

The action pack contains facts and figures about women’s justice and other useful resources, and suggests steps Soroptimists can take to help end the unnecessary imprisonment of women who are not a threat to the public, and enable them instead to tackle the causes of their offending. Soroptimists in Wales will gather information about what is happening locally in police stations, courts, probation services and women’s centres to fill critical gaps in the UK-wide picture of the state of women’s justice, serving to increase our understanding of the drivers to custody for women as well as highlighting good practice.

The evidence received from clubs will be published in a report on the state of women’s justice across the UK in 2014, which will be presented to Ministers, Assembly Members and policy makers.

Speakers at the Cardiff reception include: Jane Hutt, Assembly Member for the Vale of Glamorgan, Emeritus Professor Mike Maguire, Director of the Welsh Centre for Crime and Social Justice, Jan Hemlin, UKPAC chair; Jenny Earle, programme director and Juliet Lyon CBE, director, Prison Reform Trust.

Commenting on the Soroptimists’ campaign to end the unnecessary imprisonment of women, Jan Hemlin Chair, Soroptimist UK Programme Action Committee, said:

“The Soroptimists are uniquely placed to gather much-needed information and add a strong voice from communities across the UK to press for, and achieve long-awaited change. We have learned of the exponential increase in women’s prison numbers in recent years, with about 13,500 women now sent to prison each year across the UK. Most are imprisoned for non-violent offences. Our members are committed to ensuring more constructive responses across the country to women who come into contact with the criminal justice system, many of whom are involved in non-violent, petty offending and have been victims themselves. We are very encouraged by developments in Wales, for example the police diversion initiatives, and look forward to mapping progress.”

 Patricia Black, President, Soroptimist International of Great Britain and Ireland, said:

“I know that Soroptimist members across the UK have been horrified by the statistics presented on the imprisonment of women. If there is a way forward which can help women to change their lives for the better, if there is an alternative for some to being imprisoned, then surely we can provide a voice on this issue.”

Juliet Lyon, Director, Prison Reform Trust, said:

“The Soroptimists have an invaluable role to play, and the capacity to succeed, both in gathering information across the UK and achieving much needed reform. Most of the solutions to women’s offending lie outside prison walls in treatment for addictions, mental health and social care, safe housing, debt management and employment and skills. Welsh women face added difficulties as a result of being imprisoned even further from home than English women. The answer is not t build a women’s prison in Wales but to consider developing small secure units for the very few women whose offending is so serious that there can be no option but imprisonment. Far the vast majority, constructive community sentences will work better and avoid the pain of separating small children from their mothers.”

Sarah Payne, Chief Executive of Wales Probation, said:

“Wales Probation is making positive changes which recognise the diverse needs of women. We now operate a number of dedicated women’s services including a multi-agency women’s reporting centre, female-only unpaid work placements and the option for women offenders to report to a female officer throughout their sentence. In Gwent, the first of our Local Delivery Units to adopt this way of working, we have noted a 30% reduction in the number female offenders being given short-term custodial sentences.”

Emma Wools, Programme Manager for Integrated Offender Management Cymru (IOM Cymru), said:

“We are delighted to have just launched the IOM Cymru Women’s Pathfinder Project which aims to design and deliver a women-specific, whole system approach to service provision in Wales. By using key agency resources and through improved coordination of organisational activity we will introduce gender specific interventions at key stages of the criminal justice process.  The aim is to reduce the number of arrests of female offenders, improve community service provision for women leaving prison or serving sentences within the community and diverting women away from short-term custody where appropriate.  Building on the experiences of Intensive Alternatives to Custody by Wales Probation, the Pathfinder seeks to reduce reoffending amongst women, improve outcomes for women and their families and improve the safety of the public. “