Policy briefing, Press release | 01 April 2020

Working Chance Covid-19 Call to Action

Working Chance is calling on the government to take urgent and decisive action to protect women with experience of the criminal justice system who will suffer disproportionate hardship during this time of crisis.

Prison leavers must be supported into a safe home environment

It is looking increasingly likely that groups of people in prison will be released in order to save lives and protect the vulnerable. Working Chance welcomes actions to urgently reduce the number of women in custody, which should begin with women in prison who are pregnant, women on Mother and Baby Units, and women on remand. Short custodial sentences, which the majority of women in prison receive, must be eliminated to prevent the virus entering prisons.

We take the view that it is essential to release women in prison sooner rather than later, to reduce risk of infection and save lives.

Whether or not groups are released early from prison, there will be thousands of scheduled prison releases across the UK in the coming months. It is imperative that the government ensures the wellbeing of women prison leavers who disproportionately experience multiple disadvantage, and will be emerging unprepared into a very difficult environment.

As a matter of urgency, the following measures must be adopted to ensure the safety of those leaving prison during this time:

  • All women leaving prison must have confirmed, secure accommodation to go to. They must be given priority for housing services by the local council, or the government must be proactive in finding other sources of secure, hygienic accommodation.
  • Women leaving prison must be safely transported to secure accommodation, or given sufficient funds to do so.
  • Women leaving prison must be provided with a basic phone and credit to access key services remotely.
  • Claims for Universal Credit must be fast-tracked so that women receive payment immediately on leaving prison, without the need for an in-person appointment at the JobCentre.

In addition, we would urge the government to give a temporary amnesty to prison leavers who breach the terms of their licence, so that they not be recalled to prison.

Women in the community must have access to support services

Working Chance is concerned for the women we work with, since community-based support services will be seriously depleted during this time.

The women who come to Working Chance experience employment discrimination and stigma due to their experience of the criminal justice system. Under social distancing rules, they are disproportionately likely to experience financial hardship, mental health issues, or domestic violence. They are also very likely to have additional caring and/or childcare responsibilities. Therefore, it is imperative that they have ready access to functioning support services.

The government must conduct emergency planning in collaboration with charities who work on the frontline supporting women to ensure that remote advice, support and practical help are available for women who will be particularly vulnerable during this time. We urge the government to make urgent relief funding available for charities so that they can deliver services. Support services delivered or funded by the government must be scaled up where appropriate to meet increased demand.

Women and BAME communities must not be over-policed

Last week, the Coronavirus Law 2020 introduced unprecedented powers for the police and immigration officers to stop people and control their movements. Working Chance is concerned that escalated police powers will lead to the over-policing of women and black, Asian and ethnic minority communities.

Since women are more likely to have family responsibilities and children under their care, they may have to travel outside more often. Government guidance states that police can ‘ensure parents are preventing their children from breaking the rules’. It is unclear how this will be enforced, but if the police place pressure on parents or criminalise them if their children do not follow the rules, mothers are very likely to be disproportionately affected, as they currently are under school truancy laws.

Under the law, fines under fixed penalty notices can be issued for non-compliance. As with other similar existing fines, it is feasible that we will see a disproportionate number of women ending up with prison sentences due to non-payment.

Black, Asian and ethnic minority communities that historically experience systematic racism in the criminal justice system, including police harassment and discrimination, are likely to be disproportionately affected by increased policing, as evidenced by stop and search powers.

We call for the government to take measures to prevent systematic discrimination from taking place under the temporary extraordinary regime, and to withdraw increased police powers as soon as they are no longer necessary.

For more information please email Working Chance at info@workingchance.org.