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The Corston Report

A report by Baroness Jean Corston of a review of women with particular vulnerabilities in the criminal justiCe system

I was delighted to be invited to conduct this very important review. My interest in women in the criminal justice system goes back many years, to the first time I visited Holloway prison. I was shocked at the reality of prison life, at the life stories of some of the women in prison and, above all, will never forget my first sight of a baby in prison.

In 2002-2003, as Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR), I led a review into deaths in all kinds of state custody, and was deeply moved to see the grief and distress caused to families bereaved by a death in custody. I visited Broadmoor, where I was appalled at the inadequacy of the women’s facilities, subsequently drawing it to the attention of my then ministerial colleagues. I am pleased to learn that women are no longer held in Broadmoor. I also decided that if ever I could do anything to help address the needs of women in contact with the criminal justice system, and their incarceration in our state institutions, whether in a police cell, psychiatric hospital or prison, then I would do so.

I do not believe, like some campaigners, that no women should be held in custody. There are some crimes for which custody is the only resort in the interests of justice and public protection, but I was dismayed to see so many women frequently sentenced for short periods of time for very minor offences, causing chaos and disruption to their lives and families, without any realistic chance of addressing the causes of their criminality. I acknowledge that some low-level offending women are persistent offenders who breach their bail conditions and this cannot be ignored. But breach is ratcheting up the use of custody to little avail and there are alternative community solutions which I explore in my report. The effects on the 18,000 children every year whose mothers are sent to prison are so often nothing short of catastrophic. I have concluded that the nature of women’s custody in many of our prisons needs to be radically rethought.

There are many women in prison, either on remand or serving sentences for minor, non-violent offences, for whom prison is both disproportionate and inappropriate. Many of them suffer poor physical and mental health or substance abuse, or both. Large numbers have endured violent or sexual abuse or had chaotic childhoods. Many have been in care. I have concluded that we are rightly exercised about paedophiles, but seem to have little sympathy, understanding or interest in those who have been their victims, many of whom end up in prison. The tragic series of murders in Suffolk during December 2006 rightly focussed public attention on these women as women first and foremost - someone’s daughter, mother, girlfriend, then as victims – exploited by men, damaged by abuse and drug addiction. These are among the women whom society must support and help to establish themselves in the community.

It seems to me that it is essential to do more to address issues connected with women’s offending before imprisonment becomes a serious option. There are signs that the government would welcome a radical approach to these issues and I am grateful for this opportunity to contribute and make recommendations.