At-Risk Women Opting for Prison

Vulnerable and at-risk women are choosing prison over freedom because of fears about their safety or wellbeing, according to charitable bodies. Some women who have been released from prison are deliberately carrying out acts that will land them back in prison as they feel that they will be safer inside, or have better access to vital support.

There are a number of factors that may drive these women to feel a return to prison is preferable to life on the outside. Some have important needs, particularly mental health needs, that receive better support and treatment in prison than is afforded to them when on parole. Others fear for their safety, for example believing themselves to be in danger from an abusive partner or former partner, and still others are homeless and have nowhere to go except back inside. Roughly 60% of women leaving prison are homeless upon release, and their situation is often compounded by a shortage of both temporary and permanent accommodation, and by difficulty in accessing benefits.

For many of these women, effecting a return to prison simply involves breaching the terms of their parole. Others take more drastic action, committing new crimes in order to obtain a fresh sentence. A number of charities that work with women who are or have been in prison are reporting this phenomenon, and it is said that such vulnerable women are particularly likely to seek a return to prison in the period around Christmas.

The leader of one women’s centre in Birmingham, Joy Doal of the Anawim project, says that the Christmas period is “a really difficult time if they haven’t got a family… For some, prison is a place where they will feel safe. They get three meals and a bed for the night.”

Women in Prison‘s policy and campaign manager Claire Cain also spoke of the difficulties faced by many women upon release from prison. She said the organisation frequently encounters women who are in a situation where they have only three options: “to stay in an abusive and exploitative flat, surrounded by drugs and alcohol that they are trying to keep free from, end up on the streets, or reoffend and go back to prison.”

Many of the women in question have, at least initially, only served quite brief sentences. Most have committed non-violent crimes, and in a number of cases they have been pressured into crime in order to help fund the drug addiction of a partner.

According to campaigners, the situation reflects a lack of commitment to providing support services for vulnerable women. Others have claimed the fact women are choosing prison over life on the outside as an indictment of the lack of funding and resources allocated to the social support net that they must rely upon after release.