Crime is male. Well, mainly. In 2019, for example, the figures for the UK prison populations were: males 79,140, females 3,795.
In South Yorkshire, only 172 women were given custodial sentences, which was a fall of 31% since 2009. But a depressingly high number were repeat offenders, which is why there are national ambitions to see those numbers reduce further.
There are two ways in which this could be done. On the one hand, 54% of females were inside for sentences of less than 6 months, with 37% being gaoled for theft. There may be far better ways of managing these offenders – some of whom are mothers or carers – in the community rather than incarcerating them for a short spell with the almost inevitable consequence that many will return to old ways as soon as they come out.
On the other hand, if we understood what makes these women and girls offend, we might be able to find ways of intervening to prevent them breaking the law in the first place or ways of preventing a repeat.
It was with this in mind that we recently called together many of those agencies and organisations in South Yorkshire that deal with women and girls who are in, or in danger of coming into, the criminal justice system. We wanted to share knowledge and understanding and to see ‘what works’ in keeping females out of prison.
A member of staff from HMP New Hall, in West Yorkshire, which holds adult and young offenders, told us about the women there and their past experiences. Most had grown up in homes which had few rules or boundaries and poor role models. Almost all had been victims of trauma or abuse as children. Many, if not most, were still suffering from those adverse childhood experiences. In the female prison population as a whole, one survey found that 60% had brain injuries caused during an incident of domestic violence.
In such domestic environments the women had developed defence mechanisms – such as being withdrawn or aggressive – which they considered normal behaviour but which severely handicapped them navigating successfully through life.
The first task of the prison was to provide them with a safe space in which they could learn to see how their past had contributed to the way they now behaved. That behaviour needed to change if they were to live better lives and keep out of prison. It also suggested that the earlier in life they can be helped, the greater the chances of success.
Perhaps the most important message we took away – and will continue to take further – is the idea of a ‘whole system approach’. Each agency and organisation does what it was set up to do, but we tend to work in silos; we need to be better at understanding what we all do and how we can work better together for the sake of these women and girls.
One thing I found especially strange was a problem that everyone knows needs to be fixed, yet year after year we go on talking about it: the problem of the Friday leaver. (And this is true for male prisoners as well.) If someone leaves prison on Friday, it is almost impossible to help them until the following Monday if something vital to their future life does not fall smoothly into place – especially accommodation. Most agencies shut on Friday afternoon for the weekend, and emergency cover may not always be satisfactory or easily found. (The problem is compounded when a sentence ends on Good Friday or Christmas Eve, or when the following Monday is a Bank Holiday.)
But while it may be helpful for the offender not to be released on a Friday, if this is the date when the sentence ends, the prison cannot legally detain them any longer. So governors know that on Fridays, some offenders may face a disabling setback the moment they walk through the gate.
I cannot believe a way round this cannot be found. What is to stop sentences being passed which specify that the offender can only leave prison when the following day is a full working day – i.e never on Fridays? That is a simple change which would cost the state nothing but for some offenders could mean everything.
Criminals prey on the vulnerable
Sometimes we advertise vulnerability without realising it. I was speaking to the Barnby Dun and Kirk Sandall parish council last week about a spate of burglaries they had been experiencing. The local inspector, Alison Carr, came with me to reassure the meeting by outlining what the police knew, what suspects had been identified and how their investigations were progressing.
But during the conversation the issue of burglaries from bungalows where some older and more frail members of the community lived. They receive care during the day and carers accessed their homes with keys kept in a key safe on the outside wall. These are a familiar sight, often positioned beside the front door. The carer knows the code to open the key safe.
But to a thief this is the equivalent of saying: a frail, elderly or vulnerable person lives here and the key to the door is in this key safe.
However, some of these key safes are anything but safe. It’s almost like putting the key under a plant pot. One blow knocks them off the wall and the thief gets them open, takes the key and enters the property – through the front door, as the carer would, which must be a great shock to the resident.
The answer seems to be to ensure that those who have a key safe have one that is very robust and securely fixed – which probably means paying something in the region of £50 or £60. This is a lot of money for many in our communities, but for peace of mind it should be done. We need to check on our relatives.
Carry on boxing
Last Thursday I was a guest of the Firth Park Boxing Academy together with Angela Greenwood and Josh Keeling from the Violence Reduction Unit. The Academy was holding an evening of Amateur Boxing, with a series of bouts at the Wadsley Bridge Working Mens’ Club in Sheffield. They were challenging clubs from within Sheffield – such as de Hood, on the Manor – and further afield in the county – such as the Wath upon Dearne ABC. We were met by Hussein Nasser, who is head coach, and escorted to – literally – ring-side seats.
The venue was packed with several hundred highly vocal supporters, proud parents and friends – mainly boys but with a number of girls too.
I always support these clubs when I can. They provide young people with safe spaces in which to meet. They nurture good habits – personal responsibility, a disciplined approach to fitness, respect for others.
For some young people they have turned their lives around, taking them off the streets and giving them something purposeful to do. I was struck by two things the coaches said. One said, ‘We give them something in their lives they can rely on’. And the other, ‘They just need a bit of love and attention.’
I am learning in this job that some things you think incompatible – like having respect for someone and landing a punch on them – is not always as simple as that.
Stay safe and well.