March 06, 2020

What women lose when they do time

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“It gives you a really good feeling when you can get up and come to work every day, hold your head up and not feel ashamed about your past because no one is judging you on it.”

Chanel, Sous Chef at Honest Burgers

Have you ever wished that you could stop time? An extra ten minutes to get the kids ready for school, 30 seconds to catch the last bus, or an extra day to revise for an important exam. Have you wished that you could click a watch that would pause the world around you, leaving you free to get things done?

What if you clicked that watch, and it was you that paused? The world keeps going, people wake up and go to work, the calendar days flip past as you stand immobile, unable to take part.

This is the reality for the 83,000 people in prison right now, almost 4,000 of them women.

Some will have had time to prepare – pack a bag, pay the bills, tie up loose ends. Some have loved ones to speak to the landlord, look after a dog or pick the kids up from school. But others do not. They are told in court that they are receiving a custodial sentence, which means immediate transfer to prison. They stop, but time goes on.

If the watch stopped on you, this second, what would you lose?

One of the functions of prison is to rehabilitate those that commit crime. This means taking someone with a conviction and making sure that they won’t commit crime again. Unfortunately, this is rarely achieved by our criminal justice system.

73% of sentences given to women are for six months or less. This may sound short, but it’s enough time to lose your home, your job, and custody of your children. For women, who hold disproportionate domestic responsibilities and are more likely to end up in prison as a result of multiple disadvantage, the secondary costs of prison can be exponential.

When you’re released from prison, you are asked to be a better and more productive member of society, but under worse conditions.

We’ve all heard the saying: the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Yet year after year, women are given short, useless prison sentences that do not rehabilitate them. Is it surprising that 58% of these women go on to reoffend?

For women who come to Working Chance, that number drops to just 4%. We support women to re-enter employment by offering employability workshops and career training on an individual basis.

Almost all of the women we support have criminal convictions. 42% of our candidates have experienced domestic violence, 59% are BAME, and half are under 35 years old. They seek out extra support because they have unique needs, and because they often find that employers judge them by their conviction and not their potential. But those same employers don’t consider why a woman might have ended up in prison.

Crimes committed by women are most likely to be driven by poverty, which is reflected by the fact that before custody, only 10% of women report being employed, compared to 23% of men. 38% of women’s offences are carried out to support their children.

But a woman has just a 4% chance of landing a job by six weeks after release from prison. Even if she applies for universal credit, there is a five week wait for the first payment, assuming she can apply on the day of release. Without a stable income, the likelihood of becoming homeless or turning to survival sex increases.

Employment can provide an income, and is one of the strongest factors in reducing reoffending. But a job means more than money. It means more, even, than the financial autonomy that could keep your children in your care, or sustain a life independent of an abusive partner.

For many, a job is a sense of purpose and a reason to get up in the morning. It creates a shared purpose with colleagues, a common mission, and motivation for positive change. It means that a woman can use her talents or learn new ones. She can feel accomplished, appreciated, and hopeful. This mindset, research shows, makes people less likely to resort to criminal behaviour.

Your story doesn’t end when you go to prison. This is the truth that every prison leaver knows, but that landlords and employers, police and probation services, peers and neighbours often deny. We need everyone to give women with convictions a second chance. As a result, each woman benefits, and we all benefit.

So think about it again. Imagine that the watch stopped and paused you, right here and now, for six months. When you got going again, would you be better placed to be a contributing member of society? Or would you struggle to pick up the pieces of a life that left you behind? What would you need, to get your life back on track?

Human beings have an incredible capacity to change, if given the opportunity. We can’t turn back the clock for women with convictions, but we can give them the chance to catch up.

Olivia Dehnavi, Policy and Research Officer