Progress in the
Penal System (PIPS)

32.1: Women who offend Spotlight 3

Standard 32.1:

A gender-sensitive approach should be adopted across the criminal justice system to respond to the distinct needs of women who offend.


This new standard added to PIPS 2018 is guided by the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners (the ‘Bangkok Rules’). [652] Women have a unique set of needs that require a distinct set of responses. As highlighted by the UN Bangkok Rules, “account shall be taken of the distinctive needs of women prisoners” and “providing for such needs in order to accomplish substantial gender equality shall not be regarded as discriminatory”. [653] The same point was reiterated by the late Inspector of Prisons, who stated: “Treating women the same as men is not tantamount to achieving equality of gender.” [654]

The continued growth of the female prison population in Ireland reflects a global trend: the world’s female prison population has increased by 53% since 2000. [655] This compares to 20% for the global male prison population. [656] Some reasons given for this increase include: women being imprisoned as a result of poverty or discrimination; the impact of gender-based violence (a new report by the Prison Reform Trust [657] highlights how domestic abuse is a driver for women’s offending); harsher drug laws; alongside the treatment of female ethnic minorities in criminal justice systems. [658]

There is a key opportunity to change and challenge a culture of sending women to prison for non-violent offences, and address core underlying social issues such as poverty, homelessness, domestic violence and abuse.

Current context:

In its preliminary remarks to the Irish State on adult female prison establishments, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT, 2015) identified that, as women comprise a small proportion of the prison system, “there is a risk that the gender-specific needs of female prisoners will be disregarded”. [659] The Committee outlined some of the factors that should be considered in the treatment of female offenders:

However, it is important that a number of factors is taken into account when dealing with women offenders, including sexual/ physical abuse or domestic violence they have suffered before the imprisonment, a high level of mental health-care needs, a high level of drug or alcohol dependency, specific health-care needs of women, their caring responsibilities for their children and/ or their families, and the high likelihood of post-release victimisation and abandonment by their families. [660]

The two women’s prisons in Ireland (the Dóchas Centre in Dublin and Limerick Female Prison) are consistently the most overcrowded in the State. Published figures (5 th July 2018) show both prisons to be operating above the Inspector of Prisons’ recommended capacity: 133% at the Dóchas Centre and 142% at Limerick Female Prison. [661] On that day, there were 174 females in prison in Ireland. This compares to 142 on the same date in 2017. [662]

Snapshot Irish Prison Service 2018 Prison Populations figures demonstrate women’s prisons have been consistently above capacity in 2018:

Date Dóchas Centre (Capacity) Limerick Female Prison (Capacity)
1st January 2018 118% 113%
1st February 2018 117% 121%
1st March 2018 118% 138%
2nd April 2018 119% 158%
1st May 2018 127% 163%
1st June 2018 139% 175%
2nd July 2018 130% 171%
1st August 2018 134% 125%
3rd September 117% 117%

Females accounted for 14.5% of all persons committed to prison in 2017, and women made up 24.9% of committals to prison as a result of the non-payment of a court-ordered fine. [663]

At the annual Irish Prison Officers Association (POA) Conference in 2018, the increasing number of women prisoners over the previous six months was identified as an emerging trend. [664]

The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT, 2018) outlined the need for gender- sensitive monitoring in prisons. [665] In relation to gender-sensitive prison management, staffing and training, the CPT states: “it is crucial that any prison accommodation unit holding women has female custodial staff in sufficient numbers at all times”. [666]

In addition, “the development of more specialised training for staff working with women in prison can be instrumental in addressing their specific needs”. [667]

The Strategic Review of Penal Policy [668] (2014) also recommended that “a new female centred approach” be adopted in the management of female offenders. The Strategic Review of Penal Policy [669] identified issues such as the lack of appropriate gender-specific community sanctions and the impact that sentencing has on dependents (children or elderly relatives) of female offenders. In this respect, the judiciary has a significant role to play at sentencing stage. This is particularly relevant in the context of the State having ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UN CRC) in 1992 and in the context of the ‘best interests’ principle being enshrined in the Constitution following the passing of the children’s referendum in 2012. [670] In April 2018, the Council of Europe (CoE) [671] adopted a Recommendation on children with imprisoned parents, which states in its basic principles:

Where a custodial sentence is being contemplated, the rights and best interests of any affected children should be taken into consideration and alternatives to detention be used as far as possible and appropriate, especially in the case of a parent who is a primary caregiver. [672]

The importance of pre-sentence reports by the Probation Service prior to the sentence being delivered in court is also relevant here in ensuring that the sentencing judge is made fully aware of the individual’s family circumstances. [673]

IPRT welcomed the publication of the Joint Probation Service – Irish Prison Service Strategy 2014–2016: An Effective Response to Women Who Offend, [674] which recognises the need for a distinct approach. However, many of these recommendations have yet to be implemented and the timeline of the Strategy has now passed. The Irish Prison Service and Probation Service’s Strategic Plan 2018–2020 identifies an action to ‘develop a range of responses for female offenders to afford them more opportunity and help realise their potential.’ [675]

Indicators for Standard:

Indicators for Standard 32.1

Indicator S32.1.1: Female prison committal rates and daily imprisonment rates: There were 1,344 female committals during 2017. [676] This compares to 2,937 female committals in 2016. [677] This is a welcome reduction. However, the average number of females in custody was 144, an increase of 2.9% on 2016. [678] Overall, while the number of female committals has decreased (which likely can be attributed to the impact of the Fines (Payment & Recovery) Act 2014), there has been an increase in daily female prison population numbers.

Indicator S32.1.2: Access to and availability of gender-specific community sanctions: In 2017, 16% of all new court referrals to the Probation Service were female. [679] The Probation Service highlights in its Annual Report 2017 the BRIO (Building Recovery Inwards and Outwards) programme, a two-year education and training programme for women who experience dual issues of addiction and criminality, [680] which is based on initial recovery and recidivism interventions. [681] It facilitates 12 women to develop awareness-building skills and become peer workers and trainers. [682] The BRIO programme is due to be evaluated in 2018. [683] In the Joint Probation Service – Irish Prison Service Strategy 2014–2016:An Effective Response to Women Who Offend, a number of commitments were made including: developing women-specific recidivism data; providing a one-stop shop delivering supported accommodation; and developing women-specific community return and community service options. IPRT would welcome further progress reports on these issues.

Indicator S32.1.3: Publication of data and research on women in the criminal justice system: Little progress appears to have been made in the publication of research on women, although the Penal Policy Review Implementation Oversight Group has given an overall grade C for the implementation status of most recommendations related to women. [684]

Indicator S32.1.4: Establishment of a step-down facility/supported accommodation for women upon release: The National Strategy for Women and Girls 2017–2020 [685] committed to the establishment of a step-down facility for women offenders by Quarter 1 of 2018. This has yet to happen despite the announcement by the Minister for Justice and Equality that additional funding would be made available for the step-down unit in Budget 2018. [686] Given the commitment to improving the health and wellbeing of female offenders in the National Strategy for Women and Girls 2017–2020, consideration should be given to applying the gender-specific standards recently published by Public Health England. [687]

Progressive Practice:

Overarching Gender-Specific Principles, [688] Public Health England

  1. The whole prison environment should be focused on promoting the mental and physical health and wellbeing of all women in prison.
  2. The prison environment for women must be trauma-informed.
  3. User involvement should be integrated into the development and delivery of health and wellbeing programmes within the prison.
  4. All women in prison should have access to purposeful activity and time out of cell.
  5. A structured programme of peer support should be available to all women.
  6. Continuity of care for women on release to the community should be prepared for and ensured.

Centres for Women: England and Wales

There is a network of 50 women’s centres in England and Wales where the needs of individuals can be addressed holistically, including access to the following services: counselling and mental health, drug treatment, employment skills, support for women experiencing domestic violence, literacy, CV support, child care and housing assistance. [689] Some of these centres are residential, for example, Willowdene Farm, which has been in existence since 1988. [690] In 2018, the Ministry of Justice announced plans to pilot at least five residential centres for women. [691]

Actions required:

Action 32.1.1: The judiciary should take into account the ‘best interests’ and ‘voice’ of the child (in accordance with domestic law and international obligations) when sentencing a primary caregiver.
Action 32.1.2 The Probation Service should increase the availability of gender-specific community sanctions on a nationwide basis, and work with the judiciary to promote confidence in these sanctions as a direct alternative to imprisonment.
Action 32.1.3: The Department of Justice and Equality must ensure that all actions outlined in the Joint Probation– Prison Service Strategy 2014–2016: An Effective Response to Women who Offend are fully implemented.
Action 32.1.4: The Department of Justice and Equality must ensure the delivery of a step-down facility or supported accommodation for women leaving prison by the end of 2018. This must be met with a reduction in female prison spaces.


IPRT Irish Penal Reform Trust


Copyright 2019 Irish Penal Reform Trust. CHY number: 11091

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