Junking the Corston Report – no let-up in women’s imprisonment

It would have been a fitting tribute to Pauline Campbell, who died in May, if the Ministry of Justice had embraced the central recommendations of the Corston Report on ‘Women with particular vulnerabilities in the criminal justice system’, which was published last year. Pauline had spent five years struggling for justice following the death of her daughter Sarah in Styal prison and, without doubt, did more than any other person – or organisation, for that matter – to highlight the plight of women in prison. Her direct action, in demonstrating outside a prison every time a woman died within its walls, forced the issue of vulnerable women prisoners on to the agenda, and her constant harrying of those in power made certain it stayed there. Her death leaves a void that will be difficult to fill.

Women are responsible for 49% of all recorded incidents of self-harm in the penal system of England and Wales, yet they account for less than 5% of the total prison population. Around 80% of women in prison suffer from diagnosable mental health problems and one in four were in care as children; over 50% say they suffered domestic violence and one in three that they have been sexually abused. Only 5% of children whose mothers are in prison remain in the family home and 66% of women prisoners have dependent children. In her report Baroness Jean Corston described the need for a ‘distinct, radically different, visibly led, holistic, woman-centred integrated approach’ to the problems of women in prison.

The report was commissioned by the Home Office and published in March 2007. Its central recommendation was that ‘The government should announce within six months a clear strategy to replace existing women’s prisons with suitable, geographically dispersed, small, multi-functional custodial centres within 10 years’.

Corston argued strongly against imprisoning vulnerable women who pose no risk to the public, pointing out that only a tiny minority of women are convicted of violent offences. She recommended that custodial sentences be reserved for ‘serious and violent offenders who pose a threat to the public’, that women unlikely to receive a custodial sentence should not be remanded in custody, that primary carers of young children are only remanded in custody after consideration of a probation report on the probable impact on their children, and that community sentences for ‘non-violent women offenders’ be the norm. The final paragraph of the Executive Summary of the Report states: ‘if my package of recommendations is implemented, over time the women’s prison population will decrease’.

In all, the report made 43 recommendations, including improvements to sanitation and hygiene in existing prisons and a reduction in strip-searching, as well as the establishment of an ‘Inter-Departmental Minister-ial Group’ and a ‘Commission’ for ‘women who offend or are at risk of offending’.

In December 2007 the government published its response. Ministers appeared to agree with Corston’s analysis of the problems but highlighted the ‘key issues’ as setting up the ‘Inter-Ministerial Group to provide governance’ etc. The real central issue of closing women’s prisons was referred back to be considered by ‘a short project...chaired at Director level’, which would report to Ministers by April 2008.

In June, Ministry of Justice Parliamentary Under-Secretary and ‘Ministerial Champion for Women and Criminal Justice Matters’, Maria Eagles MP, published a Progress Report and announced a number of small changes related to Corston recommendations, including greater use of ‘conditional cautioning’ of women (which among other gems, will see prostitutes sign up to attend ‘life classes’ and be liable to arrest if they fail to attend); a pilot women’s centre in Bristol, a pilot for use of a less intrusive type of searching and, of course, a cross-departmental women’s unit to ‘manage and co-ordinate the work on Corston across all relevant departments’.

No-one should be fooled by the talk of ‘accepting’, ‘delivering’, ‘managing’ and ‘co-ordinating’. Eagles’ Progress Report also contains the government’s rejection of the crucial proposal to replace women’s prisons by small custodial units. Instead, more women’s prisons will open. A new wing is due to open next year at Bronzefield prison and plans are in the pipeline to turn Styal into Europe’s largest women’s prison. So if any ‘small custodial unit’ does now appear in a blaze of ‘implementing Corston’ publicity, take note that this will be in addition to existing prison places, not instead of, as Corston intended.

So who cares? Some of us do; that’s why on 10 August there will be a demonstration outside Styal prison to mark Prisoners’ Justice Day and commemorate the life and work of Pauline Campbell, a brave and true warrior in the fight for justice for prisoners.

Eric Allison and Nicki Jameson

Prisoners’ Justice Day demonstration, Sunday 10 August 1-3pm, outside Styal prison, Wilmslow, Cheshire (nearest stations Wilmslow and Manchester Airport). In memory of all prisoners who have died as a result of prison brutality and negligence, and in celebration of the life and work of Pauline Campbell. Called by No More Prisons, and supported by Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism!, 325 Magazine, Brighton Anarchist Black Cross, Campaign Against Prison Slavery, Justice for Women, Professor Joe Sim and others. For more details email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

There will also be a solidarity demonstration organised by London FRFI at Holloway prison at 12 noon.

FRFI 204 August / September 2008


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