In the Media

Women's prisons in desperate need of reform, says former governor

PUBLISHED February 11, 2012

Clive Chatterton condemns 'suffering' of vulnerable inmates, calling on government to pursue alternatives to short sentences

One of the country's most experienced prison governors has condemned the use of short-term sentences that put thousands of women behind bars each year.

In a letter to the justice secretary, Ken Clarke, Clive Chatterton states that his final role as governor of Styal's women's prison in Cheshire left him disturbed and bewildered. Chatterton, who spent 37 years working in prisons before retiring three months ago, says that urgent reform is needed and called for the government to vigorously pursue alternatives to jail.

He said that many judges and magistrates he had spoken to "acknowledged that many of these women did not require a custodial sentence but then ask: 'What else can we do with them?'" Chatterton is calling for a "warts-and-all review of the aims and intent of the use of custody"; an immediate end to short sentences; more women to be transferred to secure mental health units where they can receive the right care; and alternatives to prison that could be funded by the "huge" savings that would be derived from not jailing the third of women currently imprisoned for minor offences.

"I have never come across such a concentration of damaged, fragile and complex-needs individuals," states Chatterton in his letter. He says half of the women in his former prison should never have been sent there and giving short sentences to vulnerable women or mothers is damaging and self-defeating. He cites one woman jailed for 12 days for stealing a ?3 sandwich and another who took a ?12 bottle of champagne from an off licence but whose 10-day sentence was spent ill in hospital guarded by two prison officers.

Chatterton describes the levels of self harm among women prisoners as "frankly staggering" and said: "I have first-hand experience of the devastating impact both to the family unit and society as a whole when a woman is sent to prison ... homes are lost and then various agencies become involved in attempts to rehouse, kids go into care and so forth, it is vicious, costly and traumatising."

His criticism comes ahead of the fifth anniversary of the Corston report, the influential inquiry by Baroness Corston commissioned by the Home Office in the wake of six deaths at Styal Prison.

The 2007 review into the imprisonment of women "with particular vulnerabilities in the criminal justice system" recommended that ministers set up a timetable within six months to close down existing women's prisons and replace them with a local network of small custodial units reserved only for those considered a danger to the public. The Labour baroness also condemned the ubiquity of short prison sentences for minor offences, citing disruption to already chaotic lives without any pretence of rehabilitation.

Five years on, Corston says that despite the progress in establishing a network of women's centres to help keep offenders out of prison, Chatterton's comments highlighted the fact that "not enough" had changed since it was published.

She said: "From my own personal experience he [Chatterton] and other prison service staff who have served sometimes decades in the prison service, always in men's prisons, have found going into a woman's prison a terrible shock, to see all those damaged, sick, vulnerable and poor women sentenced to no good purpose." © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds