Filming with Ann Widdecombe for The One Show

I spent yesterday with Ann Widdecombe. We were filming for The One Show, a BBC One programme, a short piece about women in the penal system and I was trying to convince her that fewer women should be sent to prison and that the successful women’s centres should be supported instead.

We made the film in ISIS, a women’s centre in Gloucester that won one of the Howard League’s awards for successful community programmes. There are now 51 women’s centres across the country delivering a wide range of services but all of them are part-funded by probation to provide community sentences. Importantly, what makes the women’s centres work so well is that they also provide all sorts of other support to the women including cookery classes, healthy living, help into employment, drug and alcohol support, debt counselling, crèche facilities, reading groups and so much more. This means that the women sent to the centre by the courts benefit from a great deal of additional support and often long after the sentence has ended.

ISIS was set up by a charity, the Nelson Trust, and runs on a shoestring budget of a few hundred thousand pounds. It costs a couple of hundred pounds to deliver a community sentence, in stark contrast to the cost of imprisonment which is ten times more. It has an almost 90% success rate at preventing further offending. Whereas almost half of the women on short prison sentences reoffend.

Last Friday we helped to organise an open day for the award winning Willowdene Farm, a working farm that has a residential unit for women funded by West Mercia Probation. The farm engenders a work ethos alongside therapy with women who are at the highest risk of reoffending, often with 11 or more previous convictions.

Tomorrow the Howard League is helping to organise an open day at Anawim, a women’s centre in Birmingham. The centre works with complicated women who have been given a Specified Activity Order by the court. In the last year it has worked with more than 200 women with a reoffending rate of under 1%.

This catalogue of success contrasts starkly with the failure of women’s prisons that are awash with the blood of self-injury, where another woman hanged herself a couple of weeks ago, where babies and young children are forcibly separated from mothers, where drugs and victimisation is what waits for the women on release.

The government has set aside funding for these centres for this year, but with the dismantling of probation there is no assurance that they will continue. The line from government at the moment is that the companies taking over probation will have to “show how they are going to meet the needs of women offenders”. This means nothing.

I had hoped to convince Ann that we should close the prisons and more women’s centres should be set up, but it was not to be. You will have to watch the television programme to see her arguments.

March 4, 2014 · Frances Crook · 4 Comments
Posted in: Community progrmmes, Women in custody, Women in the penal system

4 Responses

  1. John Bensted - March 7, 2014

    Francis,
    And what Rose might not have told you is that we have assent a significant increase in satisfactory completions of probation orders for women attending ISIS on an order.
    Ps I hear you were also trying to persuade AW or consider Men’s Centres . I am really keen to develop this when I step down as Glos Prob Chief in a few months . Would be very happy to talk more about that again.
    John

  2. Karl Davies - March 12, 2014

    In my view Ann showed a total absence of common sense. Faced with the obvious argument for supporting the expansion of a system that has 91% success and a proven reduction in re-offending, I was astounded by her inability to acknowledge the importance of this type of approach.

    While I don’t think that these programmes are a direct replacement for prison. If in appropriate cases they were more widely available to judges as an option, then I don’t know many people who wouldn’t see the sense in the use of them.

    We all want less crime and to have to pay less to lock up people who could be helped towards a more rewarding life. Ann simply fixed her attention on the fact that this approach has been proven in a programme aimed at Women and she didn’t even then simply move on to advocate a trial for Men.

    Even in the event that a programme for Men wasn’t as successful does that mean that we should ignore the positive impact it has for Women.

    I could very easily continue but am fighting the urge to be very rude about AW, so I really need to stop.

  3. Janet - March 12, 2014

    I would be keen to see the same services setup for men. To just have these facilities for women is clearly sex discrimination. There is absolutely no reason why this same type of setup wouldn’t work for men as well. Having seen the TV article I am glad that Anne Widdecombe reiterated that point over and over.

  4. lizzy - March 13, 2014

    The thing is I don’t know if these type of services would even work for men. Its not being sexist to acknowledge that women and men work differently. Could you get a group of men sitting around opening up and sharing their feelings? Or would they benefit from a different service tailored to what it is to be a man in the 21st century?
    is uniquely taps into a need for women to have support, to be listened to and maybe for the first time have someone who believes in you. As a ex-client I cannot stress enough how being at Isis changed my life. I am now studying a counselling course and have just started work. Coming out of prison on my own I could not have done this without Isis.
    To Ann and Janet yes it would be great to have services available for men. However to throw in sex discrimination belittles and insults what Isis has done for the women in their service to date. It is a proven service that works, is cheaper and reduces reoffending. I don’t understand why their is a need to attack it in this way.
    As for the sitting round doing an art class thing. We were set up to do that to provide a back drop to the filming. I was really angry that was portrayed as being “Look what a lovely time they are having”.
    And Rose is amazing just btw. In fact all the staff are. I have never seen a staff member be grumpy or rude in all the time I have been there.

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