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Revealed: Women eligible for release from prison early under emergency scheme, leaked document shows

 (iStock/Getty)
(iStock/Getty)

The government is quietly allowing women to be freed from prison early, The Independent can reveal, in an extension of the emergency scheme dramatically expanded this week amid a dire shortage of cells.

Justice secretary Alex Chalk announced in October that prisoners would be released up to 18 days early to ease the overcrowding crisis, but this was thought to apply only to men’s prisons. He extended this to between 35 and 60 days on Monday, as prisons came dangerously close to running out of space.

An internal document obtained by this publication now suggests women are also being released early under the End of Custody Supervised Licence scheme. Ministers have refused to publish figures on how many people have been freed early since October.

However, women are only eligible for release up to 18 days early, The Independent understands – despite warnings that men convicted of crimes including domestic abuse are among those being released up to 60 days early.

In response to a request for comment, the government said it has never been gender-specific about which prisoners can be released.

“It’s outrageous that the Tories have draped major changes to the justice system in total secrecy,” said Labour’s shadow justice secretary Shabana Mahmood.

“Rishi Sunak has a duty to urgently tell the public today – which types of prisoners are being released and when? The public shouldn’t have to rely on media leaks to drag the truth out.

“After 14 years of the Conservatives running prisons and the criminal justice system into the ground, victims feel completely let down. A Labour government would get these new prisons built to ease the capacity crisis and deliver on our mission to make Britain’s streets safe.”

The leaked guidance, issued by a governor to officers at an unnamed women’s prison, states: “In recent weeks we have also seen increase in the population in the women’s estate.

 (PA)
(PA)

“We do not have the same range of options as the male estate has – for example we would not hold women overnight in a police cell which has been done in some circumstances in the male estate when places are low and our open estate does not operate in the same way.

“Therefore we must introduce End of Custody Supervised Licence (ECSL) which is an emergency lever that will see certain lower-risk women released on licence up to 18 days ahead of their Automatic Release Date.”

Ian Lawrence, head of the probation union Napo, told The Independent that he understands there are three women’s prisons included in the scheme, and raised concerns over a lack of equality in the treatment of women being eligible for release only 18 days early and men up to 60.

“We’re not intrinsically opposed to it if it’s managed properly, and if it is, women should be given full and equal treatment,” said Mr Lawrence.

Separate official guidance issued more widely on Thursday, seen by The Independent, confirms this disparity to be the case.

With probation already in crisis and some officers allegedly handling caseloads of up to 200 per cent of their recommended workload, Mr Lawrence said: “We’re not convinced that the haste with which this is being introduced is going to allow our members to be able to process these cases as safely as everyone would want.

He added: “Is there going to be the accommodation available? Is there going to be access to the relevant agencies to meet the needs of the person being released?”

The internal document suggests that, as with the men’s early release scheme, prisoners serving sentences for sexual offences, terrorism or violence of over four years will be among those automatically excluded, in addition to those subject to Parole Board decisions.

The number of self-harm incidents in women’s prisons has reached the highest level since records began (Tim Ockenden/PA)
The number of self-harm incidents in women’s prisons has reached the highest level since records began (Tim Ockenden/PA)

The guidance notes that while there is “no scope to rule out eligible women”, the governor can escalate the decision to a central panel if early release is deemed to pose a material risk, including to their physical or mental health.

It states: “This may be unsettling for some of our women who feel safer in prison than they do at home. It will be vital that we provide all the support they need, take the time to talk them through the scheme if they are eligible and escalate any concerns you may have.”

There were 3,651 women held in prison as of 8 March – meaning the population has soared by more than 500 since January 2023, in spite of a government pledge to reduce the number of women behind bars.

Experts have long called for an end to prisons being used as a so-called “place of safety” for women merely because there is no suitable provision in the community – despite overwhelmed prison officers often lacking the training needed to support people in mental health crisis, and often months-long waits for transfer to a secure health unit.

Violence in women’s prisons has now overtaken men’s prisons to hit an all-time high, with assaults tripling in a decade, while incidents of self-harm have skyrocketed 38 per cent to a new peak of 5,988 incidents per 1,000 prisoners – 10 times higher than in men’s prisons.

The Prison Reform Trust has found that around six in 10 women sent to prison in 2022 were sentenced to less than six months, with 80 per cent in jail for non-violence offences. Ministry of Justice data shows almost half of all female prisoners say they committed their offence to support the drug use of someone else.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “While we are carrying out the biggest prison expansion programme since the Victoria era and ramping up removals of foreign national offenders, the prison estate remains under pressure following the impact of the pandemic and barristers’ industrial action.

“So alongside our action to lock up the worst offenders for longer, we are extending the number of days some lower-level offenders are moved on to supervised licence and will make changes to ensure probation staff continue to have the capacity to deliver high-quality supervision for offenders in the community.”