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Prior
to the Corston Report (2007), attempts to define the ‘situation’ of female
offenders in the Criminal Justice System (CJS) have been predominantly confined
to feminist, theoretical accounts. Indeed, like the women in (and out) of the
CJS, such accounts have been marginalised in relation to the population of male
offenders: of the 600 articles published by Probation Journal over a 30-year
period, fewer than 30 related directly to female offenders (Worrall and
Gelsthorpe, 2009). In contrast, the Corston Report placed the ‘situation’ of
female offenders, albeit briefly, on the political agenda (Justice Committee,
2013). However, like it’s academic counterparts, it has predominantly remained
on the periphery of contemporary penal discourse, thus failing to ‘radically’ (Corston,
2007:26) improve the ‘situation’ of female offenders. Indeed, exploration of
the socio-political context of the last decade will conclude that the momentum
gained by Corston has diminished and the ‘situation’ has somewhat deteriorated.
Thus, the ‘situation’ prior to Corston will first, be defined using academic
literature and second, compared to Corston’s objectives. This will offer a
‘benchmark’ in which to assess development. Secondly, to provide an overview,
the degree of progress made on Corston’s 43 recommendations between 2012 and
2017 will be quantified and presented in graph format. After expansion on
selected recommendations, such as community sentences, reasons why penal policy
has not been based on the evidence provided by the Corston Report will be
explored. It will be suggested it is incompatible with the ideologies
surrounding ‘prison works’ and has been undermined by the Transforming
Rehabilitation agenda. To conclude, the premise of Corston’s ‘women-centred’
approach will be evaluated.

Historically,
socioeconomic factors that can instigate entry into the CJS has been neglected
due to the ‘medicalisation’ of women’s deviancy (Padel and Stevenson, 1988;
Sim, 1990). Certainly, the demographic of women’s prisons supports such a
perspective: one in five women on remand display symptoms of psychosis (Edgar,
2004), half have experienced domestic violence (Hooper, 2003) and a third have
been subjected to sexual assault (Social Exclusion Unit, 2002). Indeed, inverse
from the general population, women in the CJS are more likely to commit suicide
and self-harm than men (Fossi, 2005). However, while greater psychological care
may be necessary, the medicalisation of female deviance has been harmful in two
ways. Firstly, labelling women as ‘mad’ rather than ‘bad’ (Genders and Player,
1987) has led to over-prescription of antidepressants and sleeping medication
to account for the stress of incarceration (Scott and Codd, 2010:36). This is
perpetuated by the perception that women in the CJS are ‘doubly deviant’ (Carlen,
1988; Cavadino and Dignan, 2007). That is, committing an offense, especially a
violent one, breaks social expectations of feminine behaviour, as well as the
law. Consequently, incarceration is suggested to have the ‘double aim’ of
punishment and reinforcement of gender roles (Silvestri and Crowther-Dowey
2008). Secondly, it individualises deviancy and neglects the impact of
socioeconomic and cultural factors, such as physical and sexual abuse (Hollin
and Palmer, 2006). This has prevented the formation of policy programmes
addressing the needs of women exposed to socioeconomic criminogenic factors
prior to custody (Kendall, 2002).

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Furthermore,
the male-centric design of the CJS can be seen to disproportionately impact
women (Carlen and Worrall, 2004; Kendall, 2002; Medlicott, 2007). The sparse
location of women’s prisons, for example, results in greater dislocation from
the local community and the family (Grimwood and Berman, 2012), leaving
approximately two thirds of women and their dependent children in greater
psychological distress than their male counterparts (Annison et al., 2015:24).
Additionally, disproportionate sentencing length and severity for non-violent
crimes (Gelsthorpe and Morris, 2002; Ministry of Justice, 2016) places women in
an environment ill-equipped for rehabilitation (Corston, 2007; HM Inspectorate
of Prisons 2010). Subjection to a ‘masculinist penalty’ (Scott and Codd, 2010:34)
thus disproportionately exacerbates women’s psychological burden of
imprisonment in comparison to men, worsening their vulnerabilities (Carlen,
1983; Gibbs, 1987; Liebling, 2007). As such, alternatives to custody, such as
community penalties, should be pursued (Corston, 2007).

 

On
the one hand, Corston’s recommendations could merely be interpreted as an
institutionalised account of the observations proposed above (Hedderman, 2011).
Indeed, Corston recognises that ‘many of the recommendations … have been

made
before’ (2007: 2). For example, Corston emphasised the need ‘to do away with
big prisons that operate as social dustbins for vulnerable women’ (Prison
Reform Trust, 2007) and make greater use of community sentencing as an
alternative to custody (Corston, 2007). Furthermore, Corston emphasised the
marginalisation of women ‘within a system largely designed by men and for men’
(ibid:2). In conjunction with many feminist theoretical accounts, Corston
concludes that the equality of treatment between genders in the CJS does not
necessarily equate to equality of outcome and a ‘women-centred approach’ should
be adopted (ibid:3). Such an approach would ensure the needs of the most
vulnerable can be addressed, that is, those who have been exposed to extreme
socio-economic criminogenic factors and histories of abuse, (Justice Committee,
2013: para 41; Kendall, 2002). Indeed, this recommendation parallels the
intentions of the ‘healthy prison’ agenda whereby custody should be utilised as
an opportunity to address the needs of the most vulnerable, thus enhancing its
rehabilitative potential (Who, 2014: 92).

 

On
the other hand, in contrast to its academic counterparts, the Corston Report
differs in gravity due to greater government funding as well as clear, female
leadership (Justice Committee, 2013: para 40). Further, it provides a
strategic, coherent approach to women’s penal reform (Justice Committee, 2013:
para 44; WIP, 2012:1). For example, Corston advocates centralised management in
the form of an Inter-Ministerial group for governance and cross-departmental
coordination, as well as a ‘Women’s Commission’ and ‘champion’ with authority
to drive momentum (Ministry of Justice, 2007). Perhaps most significantly, this
‘women-centred approach’ centralised the need for small, multifunctional
custodial centres across the country to mitigate family dislocation and the
anxiety of relocation (Corston, 2007:3; Grimwood and Berman, 2012). To make
such a priority contingent on the establishment and coordination of many
institutions, however, may have been detrimental to its success. This will be
considered later.   

 

Indeed,
despite the 43 recommendations made and intentions for ‘radical’ reform (Corston,
2007), quantitative visualisation of developments demonstrates that little has
progressed and only in incremental stages (Player, 2014). I have presented in
graph format data from two reports published by Women in Prison (WIP, 2012,
2017) which utilise a ‘traffic light’ system to follow the progress made on
Corston’s recommendations (Fig.1 and Fig.2). The legend is as follows:

 

 

At
face value, it is optimistic that a further 12 recommendations have been
implemented since 2012 (Fig.2). This is mirrored by fewer recommendations being
classed as ‘no progress’, as well as an additional recommendation implemented
with the view of further development. As such, it is tempting to conclude that
the ‘situation’ of female offenders in the CJS has improved incrementally since
the publication of the Corston Report. However, the threat of ‘U-turns’ and
‘warnings’ have remained constant between 2012 and 2017. Moreover, there are
fewer viewpoints in 2017. Indeed, the extent to which Corston has ‘radically’
transformed women’s experience of the CJS to become ‘holistic, individual and
women-centred’ (Corston, 2007:2) is questionable and has led Moore and Wahidin (2018)
to conclude that very little has changed: while some recommendations have been
enacted, nine warnings remain, and five U-turns are predicted.

 

Nonetheless,
celebrated accomplishments include the abolishment of mandatory strip searching
and the establishment of 45 Women Community Services (WCS) between 2009-2013
which intended to improve holistic, community interventions and support (Hedderman,
2010:495; Hunter and Radcliffe, 2013). Furthermore, The National Reducing
Reoffending Delivery Plan introduced two gender specific pathways in Prison
Service Order 4800 to ensure the needs of women are met in prisons (WIP, 2012;
HMP Prison Service, 2008).

 

However,
strategic coordination and provision of services are yet to be enacted (WIP,
2017:7). As mentioned above, this has significant implications for the
effective organization and management of interventions across the CJS, limiting
their potential. For example, while a network of WCS remain, they have been
excluded from mainstream funding and are being delivered by the voluntary
sector (ibid). Limited economic support and a coherent strategy for
coordination across sectors has prevented the adoption of a ‘whole systems
approach’ (ibid:13). This has been detrimental to the support offered by WCS as
they struggle to meet demand, rendering their future uncertain (Radcliffe and
Hunter, 2013). Moreover, funding for Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRC) aiding
victims of domestic and sexual violence has also been threatened, resulting in
support offered only 12 weeks before release (WIP, 2017:12). So, while some
alternatives to custody were implemented, uncertain funding limits their
capacity to support rehabilitation.

 

In
addition to closure and reduced centralised financial and managerial support
for WCS (Radcliffe and Hunter, 2013), Corston’s recommendation for greater
sentencing discretion has been curtailed (Satish, 2016:118). This objective
aimed to reduce both the number of women suffering a ‘masculinist penalty’ and
the overuse of short custodial sentences. However, stagnation has been detrimental
to both women and recidivism. For example, the ungendered application of
community punishments disregarding ‘gender variables, context and power
dynamics’ (Jordan, 2013:3) can exacerbate the stress of balancing domestic
responsibilities and sanction criteria (Hedderman, 2011:36). Further, use of alternatives
to custody often result in lower recidivism rates: 55.8% of women released from
prison reoffend within a year compared to 26% after community sanctions (Hedderman
and Jolliffe, 2015). As such, discretion should be practised to ensure that
only women committing offences that warrant custodial sentences (e.g. violent
crimes) are incarcerated (Corston, 2007).

 

However,
although use of community punishments has marginally increased since 2007 (WIP,
2017), three factors can be seen to have prevented the full implementation of
this recommendation. Firstly, the ‘punitive turn’ (Garland, 2001: 142) towards
the use of custody has seen the female prison
population more than double between 1995 and 2017 (Allen and WatsonAM1 , 2017). Secondly, like the
effectiveness of WCS, failure to establish a network of services has prevented
the dissemination of information, creating a barrier to the use of
women-specific community orders (Gov.scot, 2015). Indeed, this may have
rendered magistrates unaware of the options available for the effective use of
community punishments (Birkett, 2016). Lastly, community sentences have not
‘rebalanced the system by removing
low-level offenders from prison into the community’ (Corston, 2007: 50) but
increased the number of women entering.

 

So,
while there have been some developments made, many have not been sustained and
momentum has been lost (WIP, 2017). Moreover, many ‘warnings’ have been issued
threatening further reversal of progression. In conjunction with the
continuation of greater punitive treatment towards women in the CJS, it may be
concluded that the Corston Report has had very little impact despite the
gravity of the ‘situation’.

 

This
begs the question: why, despite the overwhelming evidence, has policy not been
centred on research (Corston, 2007:16, Annison et al., 2015:5)? On the one hand,
the implementation of policies is often informed by additional factors other
than evidence (Parsons, 2002). For example, Weiss (1998) and Player (2014)
suggest that policies will only be implemented if they complement existing
ideologies. In the context of Corston, there may be conflict between ideologies
of the report and the ‘Prison Works’ agenda. That is, the latter assumes the
most effective method of reducing recidivism is incarceration, thus
alternatives to custody, such as community sentences, are neglected (Grimwood
and Berman, 2012). Indeed, despite the change in terminology to ‘What Works’,
the ‘punitive common sense’ of the public can be seen to have fortified the
former’s sentiment (Wacquant, 2012:162).

 

Furthermore,
inherent to the ‘Prison Works’ (and neoliberal) ideology, is the belief that
individuals are responsible for their deviance, neglecting socioeconomic and
cultural determinants (Moore, 2015). This ‘responsibilization agenda’ has
prompted a rise in behavioural therapy, such as CBT, in women’s prisons (Annison
et al., 2015:5; Kendall, Shaw and Hannah-Moffat, 2004). The medicalisation of
deviance and the disregard of criminogenic factors outside of the individual’s
control thus continue to define the ‘situation’ of female offenders after the
publication of the Corston Report.

 

On
the other hand, evidence use in female penal policy may have been mitigated by
the Transforming Rehabilitation (TR) agenda. TR divided and privatised trusts
into a National Probation Service (NPS) and 21 CRCs. In a bid for efficiency,
the responsibilities of CRCs were revised to include community penalties and
support for low-risk offenders after prison (Howard League, 2016). However, as
mentioned earlier, this has been detrimental to the quality of support offered
(Radcliffe and Hunter, 2013) and conflicts with Corston’s recommendation for a
‘need’ led approach. Moreover, TR extended the length of short-term sentences:
it became mandatory for an individual serving a sentence of less than a year to
receive CRC supervision for 12 months after release. Critically, failure to
comply results in return to custody. These reforms have had three significant
implications for women. Firstly, the reform can be seen to disproportionately
affect women as they receive shorter custodial sentences than men (Howard
League, 2016). On the one hand, this inequity may be interpreted simply as more
women than men are experiencing the stress of 12 months supervision. On the
other hand, it may be seen as a ‘masculinist penalty’ which women experience
more extremely than men. For example, its confliction with domestic and
childcare responsibilities (Crook, 2014), in addition to the threat of
returning to custody, reinforces the ‘double burden’ as punishment exacerbates
stress related to gender roles (Silvestri and Crowther-Dowey
2008). Indeed, the implementation of this policy has
resulted in a significant increase in the number of women being recalled to
prison for non-compliance with conditions (Annison et al., 2015).

 

Lastly,
understanding of a ‘women-centred’, ‘needs-led approach’ (Corston, 2007:2) in
the Offender Rehabilitation Act (2014) was restricted to narrow interpretations
(Howard League, 2016:3). Indeed, the original TR document dedicated only one
paragraph to the specific needs of female offenders (Birkett, 2017). Thus, with
the introduction of TR, the momentum for reform of the ‘situation’ of female
offenders can be seen to have diminished.

 

Certainly,
since the implementation of TR, Corston’s recommendations have been subjected
to a consistent number of warnings and more U-Turns (See: Fig.1 and Fig.2). In
conjunction with the ‘responsibilization agenda’ and continuation of ‘masculinist
penalties’, it seems the ‘situation’ of female offenders has hardly changed:
women continue to be marginalised and subjected to subtle forms of oppression
in, and out of, the CJS. That is, it may be said that the ‘situation’ of female
offenders offers an exaggerated microcosm of the ‘situation’ of women in the
general population: both are marginalised in a masculine environment that
reinforces gender roles. Thus, for the ‘situation’ to improve, the environment
in which the CJS operates must actively prioritise the needs of women to the
same degree, although not necessarily in the same way, as men (Justice
Committee, 2013: para 41; McDermott, 2014).

 

In
contrast, Feilzer and Williams (2015) suggest that for the ‘situation’ to
improve, a gender-neutral approach should be adopted. In this case, limited
progression and use of evidence in policy is explained by Corston’s inaccurate
theoretical foundation. That is, both the literature summarised above and
Corston’s report assumes that a ‘women-centred’ approach should be adopted.
However, as Feilzer and Williams (2015) suggest, this agenda diminishes the
potential for reform in the CJS, and thus the practice of evidence-based
policy, as the evidence base itself is incorrect.

 

However,
the practice a gender-neutral approach has seen significantly higher rates of
suicide and self-harm among female prisoners in comparison to men (Fossi,
2005). Interestingly, after the rise in self-inflicted
deaths that prompted the Corston report in 2007, there began a decrease (Fig. 3).
Indeed, this may be said to correlate to the initial ‘women-centred’ effort to
change the ‘situation’ of female offenders (Justice Committee, 2013:7).
However, between 2012 and 2016 the number of self-inflicted deaths in custody
among women increased dramatically (Fig. 3). Similarly, this may be said to
correlate to the implementation of the TR agenda that provoked the reduction of
care given by CRCS and WCS and progression on Corston’s 43 ‘women-centred’
recommendations (Radcliffe and Hunter, 2013).

 

 

According
to these statistics, it may be concluded that the recent ‘reforms’ have not
only been detrimental to development, but regressive to the ‘situation’ of
female offenders. Moreover, the abandonment of a woman-centred approach can be
seen as a contributing factor. In conjunction with increasing penal populism
and rising prison populations (Scott and Codd, 2010; Gelsthorpe and Morris,
2002), the CJS may thus be conceptualised not as a passive observer of
criminality, but as an active participant in the degradation of mental and
physical health.

 

Indeed,
when compared to the ‘situation’ prior to Corston, the CJS seems to have
actively maintained the wholly inadequate ‘situation’ of female offenders.
Firstly, the medicalisation of deviance can be seen to continue with the ‘responsibilization
agenda’ of TR. Secondly, women remain marginalised in a system designed for
men. Indeed, this has resulted in their exposure to ‘masculinist penalties’
which are disproportionately detrimental to women, and their families, wellbeing.
Thirdly, while ‘penal populists’ may maintain this is their ‘just deserts’, the
socioeconomic factors contributing to their deviance has continued to be
neglected. This has prevented the ‘particular vulnerabilities’ of female
offenders from being addressed both in, and out of, the CJS, thus perpetuating
their suffering. Indeed, in conjunction with reduced financial aid and
centralised managerial support, this can be seen to correlate directly to
increased rates of self-harm and self-inflicted deaths. It is for these
reasons, a women-centred approach remains crucial in the reform of the
‘situation’ of female offenders. However, while the Corston Report has been a
significant cornerstone in placing women on the agenda, it has been argued that
wider cultural reform is essential in the revaluation of gender roles and the representation
of women in the CJS.

 

 

 

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