Sisters Uncut

Taking direct action for domestic violence services.

Women’s Residential Centres – Another Dangerous Distraction

Friday, July 6, 2018

Last week, the Tory government announced that they will be scrapping proposals to build five new women’s ‘community’ prisons. Justice secretary David Gauke has revealed that the government instead plans to put £5m into ‘community service and early intervention programmes’, trialling five ‘residential centres’ which he argues will help to reduce reoffending rates.

Sisters Uncut celebrate the work of campaigners and organisations who have tirelessly resisted the construction of the new women’s prisons. Although the government has not acknowledged them in its announcement, it is clear their ongoing work has influenced this shift.

Sisters Uncut believe that prison is an inhumane response to social problems. The most vulnerable in our society need support, not punishment. They need care, not cages. While we, in principle, support the government’s comments that “access to education, training and support” needs to be provided in place of prisons, we have concerns about how these vague plans will be realised by a Tory government who have already stated a commitment to creating 10,000 “modern prison places” by 2020.

Concerns about funding have already been raised in both the justice and women’s sectors. Women In Prison CEO Kate Paradine has said that the funding provision is ‘wholly inadequate’ for the vision outlined. Police and Crime Commissioner Dame Vera Baird QC has raised alarm at the fact that £50 million in savings from the scrapped prison plans has already been handed back to the Treasury, rather than being kept aside for the new centres.

Additionally, Sisters Uncut are concerned about what the government’s idea of residential centres will look like in practice. MPs have waxed lyrical about moving from “custody to the community,” but detaining women away from their own communities in residential centres while they are exploited for cheap labour in the form of ‘community service’, is not what we envision when we call for community support.

When we consider the fact that black and minority ethnic people, sex workers, migrants, trans and disabled people are disproportionately targeted by the criminal justice system, and that black women in particular are more likely to serve custodial sentences, it is easy to see the sinister shape that these residential centres could take.

The plans also beg the question, what happens after prison? At present, there are no proposed plans to secure adequate housing for those leaving custody. With 60% of women left homeless after being released (as they can’t maintain tenancies whilst in prison), this is a huge issue which has gone completely unaddressed.

We can’t support the government’s announcement that claims to aim to support vulnerable women while still working within the framework of criminal justice: waiting until conditions are such that people must commit “crimes” before they can access that support. Furthermore, who will be running these centres and providing that support? Will the contracts be awarded to the highest private bidders? Will specialists who are seeking to actually decrease numbers of incarcerated people, with substantial experience of working with prisoners and marginalised people be taking the lead? We don’t believe the government can attempt to create centres which are truly seeking to support vulnerable women and non binary people, without consulting organisations such as Women In Prisons, Imkaan, and Trevi House on how these services should operate.

This move looks worryingly like a money-saving exercise masquerading as a community-centred project. For communities that are already targeted by the police, state punishment – even when dressed up as a ‘community sentence’ – subjects survivors to further violence and isolation from their families and communities.

Our vision for community support for women, non-binary and trans prisoners looks like specialist, trauma-informed and community-led services, with protected, long-term funding.

At least 46% of the people held in women’s prisons are survivors of domestic violence, and at least 53% are survivors of emotional, physical or sexual abuse during childhood. We don’t know exactly how trans women and non-binary people in custody are represented in these numbers, as their identities are continually disregarded and excluded from research efforts. These plans are yet another dangerous distraction from the fatal funding cuts that the Tory government have made to women’s services and refuge provision – which has been slashed by 1/4 since 2010 and has left survivors locked out of services, locked up in prisons and detention centres ,and locked in to violent relationships.

The police, prisons, and poorly planned, under-funded pseudo-prisons are no solution to domestic violence. The government must move from punishing to empowering survivors – by funding refuges, as well as specialist domestic and sexual violence services.