International Review of Custodial Models for Women: Key Messages for Scotland

This report summarises some of the international evidence on different approaches to managing women in custody. It was prepared to inform the consultation undertaken by the Scottish Government and the Scottish Prison Service earlier this year in relation to the redesign of the female custodial estate in Scotland.

5.International Approaches to Women in Custody

This section provides an overview of different models for women in custody across a range of countries, with an emphasis on Scandinavia and Canada (Nordic countries have low prison populations; Canada has been praised for its gender-specific regional approach). The section begins with non-residential alternatives to custody moving onto community residential centres, open prisons, and small custodial units.

Non-residential alternatives to custody

A number of countries manage female offenders in the community through intensive supervision in the community often combined with some form of monitoring of their movements (e.g. curfew, electronic monitoring).

Sweden introduced intensive supervision and electronic monitoring in 1999. This enables low level offenders to apply to serve (short) sentences (normally under 3 months) at home; 90% of applications are granted. Individuals are monitored 24/7 and can only leave the house for pre-planned activities (e.g. work)[30].

This approach has had a marked impact on sentencing and the female prison population, with the number of women sent to prison dropping by about 250-300 per year as those who would presumably have served short sentences in custody instead serve their 'custodial' sentence in the community. In contrast, the percentage of those convicted of serious crimes and sentenced to one year or more has risen i.e. only the more serious crimes result in imprisonment[31].

Although electronic monitoring (EM) is reported as a contributing factor to Sweden's low female prison population, the literature also suggests that careful consideration should be given to the domestic circumstances of women under EM, particularly those with parenting responsibilities and single mothers[32].

Rehabilitation is central to the ethos and running of the Swedish penal system. Since 2007 a number of rehabilitative options have been utilised, including conditional release (e.g. to attend vocational programmes), care services (e.g. to attend a treatment service), half-way houses, and extended conditional release (where a prisoner can serve her sentence at home under intensive supervision and EM provided she attends educational/vocational/treatment programmes). Prisoners can also go 'on leave' (e.g. to maintain family ties, arrange accommodation, interviews etc.). Rehabilitation is provided by one probation service (a government agency) and thousands of volunteers ('lay supervisors'). Very few women abscond from prison or when on leave[33].

Finland introduced the Supervised Probationary Freedom programme in 2006 which is a gradual release scheme. Prisoners in the last six months of their sentence are able to return to their communities and participate in meaningful activities such as employment, education, or care-giving. They retain some sanctions - they have a curfew and must call their probation officers at least once a day. They may also be subject to random drug tests undertaken by 'travelling parole units'.[34]

Ireland has a lower rate of female imprisonment than Scotland. It also has a lower proportion of women in prison, with women constituting 3.3% of the prison population in Ireland, compared to 5.2% in Scotland (see Table 1). This has been attributed to long-term legislative and judicial changes in the way women are dealt with in the Irish criminal justice system and, in particular, its 'community return' programme[35] which has seen a large proportion of women (about a third) who were committed to prison put on temporary release to the community (which involves intensive supervision with unpaid work)[36]. That being said, there have been criticisms of the Irish prison system more generally, most notably overcrowding, and the fact that its female prison population has continued to increase over the last 10 years[37].

Community residential units

Community residential facilities - such as halfway houses and small residential units or 'transitional' centres - provide small, structured, (mostly) secure environments for women to complete their sentence within their communities. The nature and spread of community-based units varies across countries. Typically, however, they are used to prepare (low risk) women for release, with women living in an open environment - sometimes with their children. Although similar to open prisons, they may not necessarily be managed by prison staff and tend to be smaller in size.

Evidence suggests that community residential facilities are most effective (at reducing reoffending) when they take a "holistic, trauma-informed, strengths-based, relational, and women-centred approach"[38]. An influential US study found that desistence was more likely in community residential alternatives that had a clear structure and purpose, stable funding, ongoing evaluation and an emphasis on 'aftercare' and role-modelling approaches[39]. Some research suggests that community facilities can work well when security and support functions operate separately e.g. when facilities are staffed by practitioners rather than custodial workers[40]. That being said, research also highlights that some halfway houses (e.g. in Australia) are managed successfully by correctional services (see below).

Australia has a number of pre-release community residential units. These centres prepare low-risk women for release, providing a range of services to enhance community reintegration. At the Parramatta Women's Transitional Centre (PWTC) in New South Wales, for example, there are two houses which accommodate up to twenty one women in total, including women with children. Women live in an open environment and are given responsibility for running the house. There are strict eligibility criteria for women (women must be minimum security, towards the end of their sentence, not have any active drug or alcohol problems and assessed as suitable to live with children). Women go into the community for treatment (e.g. counselling), education, employment and recreation. The centre is run by female staff and has very low recidivism rates[41].

In Germany, mothers and their children can live together in halfway houses. Women must comply with a curfew at night, but work (or access training and support) during the day whilst children attend nursery/school[42]. This approach has been recognised as an innovative approach that minimises the harm of a mother's imprisonment on children whilst ensuring that women serve their sentence[43].

Canada has a range of community based residential facilities, such as halfway houses which are state-funded and run by NGOs (inc. private home placements, supervised apartments and alternative community beds). Here, the importance of creating supported independent living facilities is key[44]. Examples include Ellen House in Ontario (which offers substance abuse support and case management while housing women offenders in the community), Phyllis Haslam Residence at Elizabeth Fry Toronto for wome on parole, and The Coverdale Centre[45].

There a number of examples of open residential facilities in New York in the United States for women and their families (mostly for women with experience of homelessness, mental health and substance abuse problems). For example, Drew House houses up to five women and their families (inc. higher risk women) in a non-secure apartment. It is cited as a cost-effective way of reducing reoffending with proven success in recidivism, and education and well-being outcomes. Greenhope Kandake House houses up to 72 women including 28 with their children, and also reports low recidivism rates[46]. Other examples include those targeted at women with substance abuse problems such as ARC which has four residential alternatives (housing up to 51 women), including a small minimum-security facility for women transitioning from prison[47].

In Scotland, the 218 Service (a women's centre) has a quasi custodial 12 bed residential unit and a day programme providing a range of compulsory and optional group work sessions and one-to-one support[48]. This is not, however, a secure custodial unit.

In England and Wales, the Corston Report (2007)[49] originally envisaged women's centres as offering community-based residential facilities for women on bail or women released from prison with no suitable accommodation. However, the Prison Reform Trust review in 2014 of women's justice services in the UK[50] highlights the shortage of 'approved premises' (formerly known as probation or bail hostels), which, it argues, increases the likelihood of remand. The report fails to mention any women's centre that currently provides accommodation in England or Wales, but states that some could do so if funding were available.

Open prisons

There is no single definition of an open prison; however, they tend to be penal establishments in which prisoners who are classified as low risk to the public can serve their sentence with minimal supervision, in some cases being able to work in the community returning to the prison in the evening.

In Scandinavian countries (in this case Finland, Norway and Sweden), open prisons hold between 20-30 per cent of the prison population. Prisoners who have committed low-level offences (e.g. drunk driving) may serve their entire sentence in an open prison. However, most prisoners will serve the bulk of their sentence in a closed prison but may be moved to an open prison towards the end of their sentence to prepare for release, or as a result of good behaviour. Between 15 and 20 per cent of referrals from closed prisons are recalled due to breach each year (men and women)[51].

Finland has one of the lowest prison populations in Europe. However, this has not always been the case. In the 1970s Finland had one of the highest prison populations but, following a series of expert-led penal reforms, the number of prisoners has fallen to Scandinavian levels (despite rising crime rates). That being said, the number of women in prison has risen in recent years and they now make up seven per cent of the prison population[52].

About a quarter of female prisoners live in open conditions in Finland[53]. Most of these are held in Vanaja Prison which is an open female prison unit that accommodates up to 50 women. Prisoners can move freely during the day but must return at night. Some drive to work with their movements being monitored by a special kind of mobile phone. Any breach of the sanctions would result in them being returned to a closed prison[54].

Germany has a range of penal options across its sixteen states, including units for first time offenders (e.g. Erstvollzug). Repeat offenders are held in separate prisons. Frondenberg prison is heralded as an exemplar for women with children. It is an open unit for up to 16 women who live with their children up to the age of six in self-contained flats. It is as normal and unthreatening as possible (e.g. no bars on windows), with many children not knowing they are in a prison. Most of the women have committed low level non-violent crimes such as theft or fraud. Women are able to go outside and play with their children, and have 'vacation' days where they can leave the prison unsupervised. Reoffending is reported to be significantly lower than than women who are not housed with their children[55].

England has two women's open prisons[xii]. However, these may be considered for closure once new 'resettlement' arrangements are in place which will enable women to be held nearer to home (see next section). Some concerns have been raised about these closures (in the Prison Reform Trust/Soroptimist 2014 review[56] and in the press[xiii]). However, the UK Government has stated that the (rural) location of the two prisons means that they are not suitable for the majority of women[57].

Spain also has a number of 'dependent units' which are open prisons for women and their children (see Chapter 8. International approaches to parental responsibilities)

Small Custodial Units

Women's custodial units can vary by nature and size. They can be specialised secure units situated alongside larger prisons (e.g. mental health units) or outwith prisons (e.g. drug residential units), or they might be larger, regional or local units that hold women of different security levels.

Recent developments internationally have included 'cottage-style' accommodation, where women live in shared houses or 'cottages' with a communal kitchen and bathroom, and develop independent living and pro-social skills through collective cooking, cleaning and budgeting[58].

In Canada women who are sentenced for two years or more are the responsibility of the federal government, whilst those sentenced to less than two years are the responsibility of the provincial government. Canada has had a network of five federal multi-level security 'self-care' regional facilities for women since the 1990s. A sixth was built in 2004[59]. These were originally built in response to the recommendations of a government Taskforce on Federally Sentenced Women (which was established following a spate of female suicides in prison) and replaced the then national women's prison[60].

The original 'self-care' ethos was premised on self-responsibility and independent movement (via non-intrusive security measures). Women live in shared houses (of up to 10 women) around communal gardens and budget, shop and clean together, thereby gaining crucial independent living skills. Women can have private family visits (up to 72 hours) and receive trauma counselling from external services. Prisoners may be released and whilst still technically prisoners, can be placed in a variety of non-prison environments (e.g. conditional releases)[61]. A status report in 2006 reported that 81.5% of all frontline staff in Canadian institutions were female[62].

The facilities were built as a cluster of 'cottages' on a 'campus' operating at multiple security levels[63] which house minimum, medium and maximum-security women. A 'healing lodge' is available for (aboriginal) minimum and medium security level women.

As the Canadian Government website[64] describes:

  • Women who are classified as minimum or medium security level live in housing units with communal living areas, where they are responsible for their daily needs such as cooking, cleaning and laundry.
  • Women who are classified as minimum or medium security level with mental health needs and/or cognitive limitations are accommodated in housing units called Structured Living Environments, where staff with specialized mental health training provide assistance and supervision. Women with additional mental health needs are accommodated at one of two national treatment centres
  • Women classified as maximum security are accommodated in secure units, where high-level intervention and supervision is provided by specialized staff.

At the Nova Institution[65], for example, women are housed in different styles of accommodation depending on their security level. There are eight units which can house five to seven women. Two other units provide extra mental health support and security for those women who need it. The 'structured living environment' (SLE) unit houses up to eight women who need specific mental health interventions. There is also a Secure Unit which houses up to ten maximum security women.

At another institution (Grand Valley[66] - see Figure 4) there are houses for women with babies, new arrivals and women who need extra supervision. Women have free access to laundry and bathing and have keys to their houses and rooms. The facility offers a range of services, including mentoring.

However, overcrowding has become a problem in Canada which has led to an increased use of large secure facilities[67], and the expansion rather than contraction of women's prisons with, as noted earlier, a sixth facility being built in 2004, and expansions in most of the existing ones (e.g. the Nova Institution was expanded in 2013-14 to accommodate two new seven-bed houses and four more SLE spaces[68]).

Criticisms of the implementation (rather than the philosophy) of the Canadian approach highlight the limitations of a regime change predicated on buildings[69]. This and other learnings from Canada are discussed in a later section (see Chapter 7. Learning from the Canadian Experience).

Figure 4 - Grand Valley Institution for Women, Ontario, Canada

Figure 4 - Grand Valley Institution for Women, Ontario, Canada

(Map data ©2015 Google Imagery ©2015, Cnes/Spot Image, DigitalGlobe, First Base Solutions)

Australia, which has a similar number of women in custody as Canada (2591 in 2014)[70], combines large prisons with smaller units and transitional centres across its five states or territories. Recent prisons statistics (2014[71]) state that Australia's imprisonment rate has reached its highest since 2004. That being said, Australia has received praise for its gender-specific approach in a number of its penal facilities.

For example, the Boronia[72] Pre-Release Centre in Perth provides a low-security residential style setting for up to 82 women with a maximum of 5 per unit. It is modelled on a 'self care' approach similar to Canada in which women have access to a café and supermarket and life is as close to the outside community as possible, and has been described as resembling a 'well-kept suburban landscape [rather] than [an] institutional setting'[73]. An emphasis is placed not just on 'self-care' but also on 'good neighbourly behaviours' to prepare women for life in the community. A range of services are provided to prepare women for release (e.g. all women are employed whilst there). As they approach the end of the sentence women are allowed periods of leave from the prison e.g. to re-establish connections with their families[74].

Smaller units in Australia tend to be specialist in nature focusing on mental health, mother-child relationships and the needs of Aboriginal and other ethnic minority women. For example, the Mum Shirl Unit[75], in NSW, is a 19 bed unit for women offenders with severe mental health problems (e.g. borderline personality disorder). It is based on the principles of the 'Good Lives Model'[76] (a strengths-based approach) and works with day program participants too. Australia also has a specialist national unit for women with severe mental health problems.

Norway has three women-only prisons with capacity for 64, 50 and 13 women respectively. The largest of these - Bredtveit in Oslo - has a high-security facility with a capacity of 45. The remaining places are lower-security, mostly for those who are in the final phase of a longer sentence, are preparing for treatment in an institution (as part of their sentence or afterwards) or are active outside prison during the daytime. The prison is reported by human rights organisations to be largely consistent with the Bangkok Rules[77].

In Sweden women are held in one of four dedicated women's prisons and one wing of a men's prison. There is a large women's prison (Hinseberg women) which has a flat where children can have overnight stays. Hinseberg Prison has a capacity of 94 and is divided into a closed (60) and open (34) section. Women are held in eight single-storey houses which hold 10-12 women each; women in the closed section are locked in their rooms at night[78]. There are also a number of open prisons. In Sweden, penal policy emphasises maintaining links with the community and some prisoners are held in small neighbourhood prisons where they access universal services[79].

In England, a number of prisons are being reconfigured to allow some women to live in smaller open units next to existing (closed) prisons. For example, a half-way house has been opened at HMP Styal which houses up to 25 women in open accommodation outside the prison. It is understood that an open unit at HMP Drake is also to be developed[xiv].

England is also developing new specialist units called Pyschologically Informed Planned Environments (PIPES) and Personality Disorder treatment services for women in five prisons[xv]. These services typically hold 12 to 24 women and are jointly run by NHS, NOMS and third sector staff[80].

Scotland also has a number of community integration units (CIUs) attached to closed prisons. For example, CIUs were established in HMP Inverness and HMP Aberdeen in 2010 (since replaced by HMP Grampian in 2014) to help women access community services and support networks prior to release.

An example of another specialist unit (mother and child units in Spain) is discussed in Chapter 8 (see International approaches to parental responsibilities).

Other custodial approaches

In Denmark the principle of normality is enshrined in law and its penal philosophy is for prison to be as similar to life outside prison as possible (a similar system operates in Sweden). This extends to private family visits (including conjugal visits) which are considered to be a human right that cannot be taken away[81]. If a couple has a child, he/she can stay with them until he/she is three years old and attend a local nursery during the day[82].

Two other overarching principles enshrined in law in Denmark are self-management, and the outlawing of prison overcrowding. In relation to the former, prisoners are required to do their own shopping, cooking, laundry and cleaning; all institutions therefore have facilities for shopping and communal kitchens. Prisoners who do not work are given a budget for self-catering[83]. For example, the high security prison, Ringe, in Denmark, men and women (up to 86 prisoners) live together in units of around 10 people, where they share a communal kitchen and bathroom.

Spain also has a number of mixed prisons in which contact between men and women is not forbidden and, it is considered, may be beneficial to some women. One study, for example, reported that being in a relationship with another (male) prisoner can have a positive effect on women's psychological health[84]. That being said, other reviews and evaluations have highlighted the importance of women-only services and 'safe' environments, particularly for victims of previous trauma and domestic abuse[85]. Similarly, mixed-gender facilities have been abolished in a number of countries, such as Sweden[86].

France has two women's prisons. The remainder of women in custody are held in female units within men's prisons, across about 50 institutions[87].

Most female prisoners in Ireland are held at the national closed medium security prison in Dublin (the Dochas Centre[88]) which houses up to 105 women serving long sentences/serious offenders, and all female offenders from the east and north of Ireland. The remaining women from the south and west are held in Limerick prison (capacity of 28) which is traditional closed medium security prison which also holds up to 220 men. As noted earlier, criticisms have been made of the Irish penal system in respect of overcrowding and a rising female prison population (see Non-residential alternatives to custody).

Northern Ireland has faced criticism for delaying its replacement of its women's prison, Ash House (a predominantly male prison), with a smaller, separate women-only facility[89]. The proposal for the new prison is based on a multiple security 'community village model' which would accommodate mothers and babies, as well as serious offenders and those with severe mental health needs. The Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS) Review in 2011[90] stated that:

"the ideal configuration would be a complex of buildings that contained a secure custodial pod, with other services (education, health, probation, community service, programmes etc) attached and within a secure perimeter. These services could be accessed by all women either in custody, under supervision or subject to other court orders." (p69)

Despite these delays, work is underway to develop 'step-down accommodation' (temporary supported accommodation) for women deemed suitable for working and accessing services outwith prison, in preparation for their release[91].

There are 12 women's prisons in England, which, following a review of the custodial estate by NOMS in 2013[92] have now been designated as 'resettlement' prisons i.e. prisons that are designed to help women prepare for release, particularly those serving longer sentences. Similar (in principle) to open prisons, these are designed to allow some women to work or train outwith the prison during the day and to be held closer to home. Temporary release licences (which women are less likely to fail than men) are available in all resettlement prisons to enable eligible women to undertake work, training and educational opportunities and family visits[93]. However, a recent report from the UK Parliament Justice Committee states that:

"We remain of the view that an estate consisting principally of small custodial units is best suited to women in custody. This should be the long term aim of the Government, when it has been successful in reducing the size of the women's prison population". (UK Justice Committee 17 March 2015 [23][94].)

The report notes that the Committee's recommendation for the development of small custodial units has not been accepted by the UK Government. Instead the UK Government is developing 'strategic hubs' - resettlement prisons situated close to large urban areas - to enable women to be held near areas where they are likely to live on release and to access a range of interventions. There are no women's prisons in Wales, which has been reported to cause difficulties for women to maintain contact with their family and resettle in their community after release[95].

In the USA there is no distinctive women's prison estate[96]. Indeed there are only four women-only prisons out of 108 federal facilities. There are, however, examples of good practice for specific groups. For example, California has a specialist unit for older women (aged over 55) - the Senior Living Unit - where women receive age-appropriate programmes and privileges (such as unlimited phone access). This is in response to a growing population of older female prisoners and evidence that older women prisoners are lower risk and have different needs than younger women[97].

In New Zealand, although the prison system for women is similar to that of men[98], there are a number of self-care units in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. These are residential units for eligible women nearing their release. In some cases women are able to live with their babies in these units[99].


Email: Tamsyn Wilson

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