THE BIG INTERVIEW: What should be at top of in-box for Justice Minister Claire Sugden?

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Professor Linda Moore copy

VIEW editor Brian Pelan talks to Linda Moore, above, Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Ulster University, about a range of issues concerning prisons in Northern Ireland, including the situation for women inmates at Hydebank Wood and what should be at the top of the in-box for the Minister for Justice Claire Sugden

Amidst the noise and the hustle and bustle in the cafe at the Mac theatre in Belfast, I listened as Senior Lecturer Linda Moore spoke passionately and knowledgeably about the situation facing women prisoners in Northern Ireland and why we need reform and accountability in the penal system.

I started off by asking Linda had the situation changed for women prisoners since she and Professor Phil Scraton brought out their book, ‘The Incarceration of Women: Punishing Bodies, Breaking Spirits’, in 2014?

“In our book we documented the really serious human rights abuses for women in prison in Northern Ireland,” replied Linda. “And we documented their marginalisation by them being placed in a male young offenders centre. Fundamentally, that situation remains the same. The women’s prison unit in Northern Ireland in Ash House still remains situated in Hydebank Wood – a young male offenders centre. That is absolutely shocking.”

I asked her what type of offences are women being held for and what are the current numbers?

“Women represent a very small proportion of the prison population. Presently there are about 55 women being held. When we started our research in 2004 there were on average between 24 and 25 women being held. In the space of a decade that number has more than doubled. We are seeing a worrying rise in the numbers of women being held.

Linda scraton book copy

“They are being held for a mixture of offences. Some are serving life sentences but too many women are serving short sentences for relatively minor offences such as property offences and non-violent offences. I understand that women are still coming into the prison for fines offences. “We know short sentences don’t work,” said Linda.

“The research is quite clear on this. What we argued in our book was that women shouldn’t be there for fine default, they shouldn’t be there on short sentences, they shouldn’t be there on remand, except in very exceptional circumstances, they shouldn’t be there if they have very serious mental ill health issues.

“If you take those women out of the system then you are left with a very small number of women in prison. What we have also argued is that when you are going to rebuild the women’s unit outside of the young male offenders centre it should house no more than 25 to 30 women. And yet the Department of Justice have plans to build a 94-bed women’s prison. They should be looking instead to reduce the number of women being held.

“There have been some changes for women in Hydebank Wood. There has been the development of a step down unit called Murray House which is a six-bed unit for women about to leave jail. There is also now more of a range of work opportunities for women than there was in the past. So there has been some small changes, but it’s still an absolutely unacceptable situation to still have women placed in a male offenders centre.”

I also wanted to know her views on the type of issues which should be at the top of the in-box for the new Minister for Justice Claire Sugden.

Linda said: “The recommendations of the Prison Review Team, led by Anne Owers, in 2011, are still an issue. The Prison Review Team Oversight body said that most of Ms Owers’ recommendations have been signed off, but I don’t understand that. The report in 2015 from the Chief Inspector of Prisons in England and Wales Nick Hardwick and Brendan McGuigan, chief inspector of Criminal Justice NI, described Maghaberry as “the most dangerous prison ever inspected”.

“This was absolutely shocking and an embarrassment to any prison service. To my mind what was said in the prison review team report in 2011 still hasn’t been implemented in spirit and in practice.

“I would suggest that the new Justice Minister Claire Sugden needs to look again at the Prison Review Team’s recommendations. They should also talk to the organisations on the ground, talk to the families, talk to prisoners and find out how they are experiencing the situation.

“We need a change in culture. So far, that has not happened. We need to have deincarceration instead. Prison numbers have unacceptably risen. We know that prison is expensive and we know that it doesn’t work. She should focus on what we can do instead to assist people from offending.”

Prime Minister David Cameron has recently outlined a series of proposals to reform the prison system in England and Wales, such as schemes to reduce offending, changing the criteria in which former prisoners have to declare their convictions when applying for a job, more releases into community schemes, league tables and more autonomy for prison governors. I was interested to hear whether she believed that these proposals should also be implemented in Northern Ireland.

“We have tended in Northern Ireland to basically replicate a watered down version of what is suggested in England and Wales,” replied Linda. “I do believe, though, that the Northern Ireland Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (NIACRO) has done fantastic work around tackling the stigma around employment for former offenders.

“I think the new Justice Minister should talk to NIACRO about their ideas. We need more employment support for prisoners when they are released. I definitely don’t want to see prison league tables being introduced here. It didn’t work for schools, why would it work for prisons? League tables just become a box ticking exercise. What we want is support for people and organisations who are trying to work with prisoners.

“Also prison governors in Northern Ireland do not have a great record. All you have to do is look back at our research or inspectors’ reports to see that we should not be looking at giving them any more autonomy. We need better leadership and we need accountability.

“I find it absolutely shocking that you can have over a decade of inspection reports, independent research reports and the Human Rights Commission saying that things are disastrous in prisons in Northern Ireland.

“And yet no one is ever held accountable, no one gets sacked. People get shifted around the system or they get moved on. We need proper accountability.

“We understand from all the research that prison is an expensive failure. The money that is currently being spent on prisons could be put to a better use. “We have a fantastic voluntary sector here and we are aware that they are doing amazing work around prisons.

“They include NIACRO, the Quakers, Include Youth and the Children’s Law Centre. If that money was invested into those organisations and the women’s sector, we would have a better outcome. People often say ‘what is your alternative to prisons’? I would say instead let us reinvest in things that work.”

I asked Linda about the high proportion of people from a working-class socio-economic background who are held in our jails.

“We know that young people and children who come from marginalised or economic disadvantaged communities are more likely not to get support in schools, to be put out of school and to get into trouble on the street and to come to the attention of the police.

“Why is it the case that more children in care end up in trouble? It’s not they are worse kids. It is that they are not given adequate support. It’s terribly sad as a prison researcher to go around jails and to see prisoners who have had a really rotten start in life and who then end up in jail.

“It really hit me once when we interviewed a woman in jail who had been abused as a child. “She said that when she went to her cell at night it reminded her of when she was a child in her bedroom and waiting for her abuser to come up to her room. I just thought, as a society, is this how we are responding to people who have suffered childhood abuse? Is there not a better way?”

• The Incarceration of Women: Punishing Bodies, Breaking Minds by Linda Moore and Phil Scraton – Palgrave Macmillan Publishers

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