My recent study into the current experience of projects providing community based female offender services, shows that the sustainability of those projects remains tenuous, with 89% of those interviewed stating they feel their projects are less secure or as insecure as they were 12 months ago. The projects are a mix of Women’s Community Projects (WCPs) developed following the Corston Report and other women’s services for offenders that, along with the WCPs, work in a user focused way, providing holistic support that is gender specific. This approach uses specialist interventions to reduce reoffending, by meeting the unique needs of female offenders. This blog post will highlight some of the main findings of the interim report, which can be read in full here. “Shockingly desperate times for women”Most worryingly, projects stated there is a clearly emerging crisis amongst service users as a result of current austerity measures, particularly welfare changes. They are manifesting in women not being able to feed themselves, mounting debt and an increased level of anxiety, depression and self-harm. As one project described, these are “shockingly desperate times for women”. Projects reported that their financial instability meant valuable staff were in danger of leaving, as the uncertainty was untenable for them. The projects also said that economic crisis for the users was demanding more staff time and that users were not immune to picking up on the challenges the projects were facing, which increased their anxiety levels even further. “What is it? … What are we doing wrong?”There are valuable advocates/champions within statutory organisations for local projects and many of the projects have received awards for their work, been mentioned in pre-election campaigns by Police and Crime Commissioners and some are regularly visited by local sentencers. But despite such a profile, projects still feel that they are not being fully heard. Projects felt they are not afforded respect for their expertise, they are not invited to the table to negotiate their future, their innovation is dampened by closed doors, including examples of last minute stalling of alternative sentencing options that utilised the local service, or a lack of vision by a local council, when offered a funded project to tackle attachment issues for women and children. Projects struggle to understand what they are doing wrong for their provision not to be fully embedded into local strategic approaches and for them not to have a central voice in shaping local provision for female offenders, both within their projects and with other cross-cutting services. Importance of gender specific projects at riskWhat became stark was that the definition and value of a gender specific service for female offenders is at risk. Commissioners were said in some cases to be responding to the idea that there are gender specific needs and that gender specific provision is necessary, but “they aren't responding to good practice models” to effectively meet that need and provide an adequate service. A project described it as commissioners being happy to purchase a non-gender specific service that can tick a box to say "Yes, we run a women's morning". But the commissioners don't look at the detail about how the service does that: "It’s not a women’s service, it’s a mixed service with a women’s group once a week"... "[Some commissioners] do not look at best practice". Light at the end of the tunnel?Austerity is hitting women offenders hard. Therefore gender specific support projects need the commitment of central government policy and the will of local strategic partners to sustain funding, truly embed the ethos of these unique projects, and fully grasp the enormity of what will happen if female offenders lose any element of their local service provision. The projects that assist women on their journey of desistance, are also currently throwing themselves into the economic maelstrom to prevent spiralling debt and despair amongst this vulnerable group in society. One project said that “It feels a tad hopeless and after 10-12 years I don’t know where the new energy is going to come from [to take this agenda forward].” Having worked in a women offenders’ project at its inception, I empathise greatly with projects that are now hugely successful, but still feel like they are battling to survive. The final report will highlight innovative approaches by some probation trusts in developing services in their areas and hopefully the amended Offender Rehabilitation Bill will go some way to address the concerns, as it requires the Secretary of State for Justice to ensure contracts with new providers under the Transforming Rehabilitation reforms ‘consider and identify’ the specific needs of female offenders in their bids, ‘so that the issue will be expressly considered when commissioning rehabilitation and supervision services’. In addition, the intended Ministry of Justice guidance on good practice in women offender services to influence the market under Transforming Rehabilitation may ensure on-going commitment to gender specific services. At this immensely challenging time for all, let us not miss the opportunity to embrace the skills and vision of local projects, the enthusiasm of champions and those statutory partnerships that have underpinned the good work to date. To not build on this would be sad, to let it go would be tragic. Your experience of the current situationPlease share your experience and how you are currently working to sustain local provision:• How has your project overcome some of these challenges?• How are you able to influence local strategy?• What good practice by partners is enabling you to meet the current needs of your service users? Louise has worked at HMP Eastwood Park women’s prison co-ordinating VCS services, created the Sex Workers in Prison training project and helped manage the Eden House Project, a women’s community project in Bristol. Her work with Clinks as a local development worker can be found here.
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