Stopping the Prison Cycle for Women

In just over six years of client facing work, the Fulfilling Lives project has worked with a total of 69 women across the three project areas of Brighton & Hove, Eastbourne and Hastings, of a total caseload number of 118 clients. The Fulfilling Lives offer is a flexible one; a mixture of practical support to address immediate safety combined with psychosocial, trauma informed interventions to support behaviour change, and has had a hugely positive impact on the lives of many of the women with multiple and complex needs that we have worked with.

Sometimes the more interesting learning comes from exploring where things haven’t been successful however. In spite of the intensive and flexible support offer from FL, some individuals haven’t been able to make significant change in their lives and remain stuck in patterns of repeat offending. Work has remained focussed on immediate crisis and risk-led interventions, rather than on planned or preventative work to support individuals to break the cycle of reoffending.

The women on our caseload who are in contact with the criminal justice system have some of the most complex difficulties of any of the clients working with Fulfilling Lives. All have mental health diagnoses, including anxiety and depression, personality disorder and bipolar disorder, all use alcohol and drugs and all have experienced domestic violence and abuse.

These individuals are engaged in repeat cycles of offending, often driven by active addiction. They receive short custodial sentences and are regularly released as street homeless where the chaotic nature of their lives leads to breaching license conditions and being recalled to prison after only a short time in the community.

The majority of female offenders with complex needs are also victims; this does not, however, result in them receiving better coordinated support.

The majority of female offenders with complex needs are also victims; this does not, however, result in them receiving better coordinated support. It is widely accepted that women need a dedicated pathway of support that takes account of the multiple trauma experienced and their victim status; but there remains a shortage of trauma-informed, gender-specific interventions for women locally.

At Fulfilling Lives South East we have worked really effectively with local multi agency partners including CRC probation colleagues (soon to be National Probation Service), Brighton Women’s Centre, Oasis and others in coordinating creative and flexible support arrangements to maintain positive engagement with women experiencing multiple disadvantage in the community. However, much of the positive work achieved in the community can be interrupted by recalls to prison which interrupt housing and support plans in the community.

We have recent case studies which highlight how women are trapped in cyclical offending patterns often driven by mental distress and desperate cries for help. The offender journey here highlights how a woman supported by Fulfilling Lives experienced mental health crises in the community after leaving prison homeless 3 times in one year; a cycle which was only broken by identifying a suitable accommodation placement on release with high enough support to manage her mental health needs.

The Fulfilling Lives project is committed to systems change. However, in terms of affecting real change, the systemic issues which contribute to these patterns of behaviour are difficult to tackle at a local level alone.

We know that short sentences don’t contribute to recovery or stabilisation.

We know that short sentences don’t contribute to recovery or stabilisation. The solution must lie in taking a genuinely systemic approach in addressing the underlying issues which are driving women to offend.

We don’t need to seek the answers. Many of the recommendations outlined in the 2007 Corston report are still relevant and mostly still not implemented. We want to see more specialist women’s support in the community, more liaison and diversion schemes to divert women away from custody into support and sentencing reform with greater use of alternatives to custody and women’s community support services.

With these national changes in place the excellent work that is happening locally to coordinate multi agency case support in the community for all women experiencing multiple disadvantage can be embedded further and more lives can be turned around.

Author: Jo Rogers, Senior Manager, Fulfilling Lives South East Partnership

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