The UK and Welsh governments say they are still no closer to establishing a centre for female offenders in Wales.

The Residential Women's Centre (RWC), proposed as an alternative to prison for women in Wales, was due to open as a pilot by the end of 2021 - but the governments have yet to find a site for it.

The news comes after a National Audit Office report strongly criticised the UK government’s “limited progress” on meeting the needs of women in the criminal justice system.

There are currently no women’s prisons in Wales.

"The MoJ’s failure to develop a single women’s residential site in Wales as part of its Female Offender Strategy, speaks to a lack proper funding, planning and interest exacerbated by the jagged edge of devolution,” Sioned Williams MS, Plaid Cymru's spokesperson on Social Justice and Equalities, and Rhys ab Owen MS, Plaid Cymru's spokesperson on Justice and the Constitution, told The National.

"This development comes at a worrying time, given that the number of Welsh women in prison has increased by one fifth in the last 10 years - with over 85 percent being sent to prison for non-violent offences. 

The Ministry of Justice has been criticised for its Rhys ab Owen and Sioned Williams. (Picture: Huw Evans Agency)

“Instead of looking at alternatives to custody, there has been a two-thirds drop in the use of community sentencing over the last 10 years, with plans to create 500 new places for women in prison. 

“New draconian legislation being rammed through Westminster, such as the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, will potentially only increase the number of people being incarcerated.”

Women accounted for a quarter of UK prison self-harm incidents in 2020, despite making up only four percent of the prison population. 

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Overwhelmingly jailed for low-level and/or non-violent offences, more than half of women prisoners report having been victims of domestic violence, while 53 percent report suffering abuse as a child.

The UK’s 2018 Female Offender Strategy was an attempt to address these particular needs. It proposed reducing the number of women in prison, funding “support in the community” to prevent offending, and improving prison conditions.

A recent National Audit Office report found a number of failings in progressing this strategy, noting that the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) allocated limited funding and resources, failed to set any programme goals or targets, and was two years late publishing an agreement on how public bodies would work together on the Female Offender Strategy.

The Ministry of Justice has been criticised for its The Ministry of Justice has been criticised for its "weak" progress on meeting the needs of women in prison. (Picture: CP Hoffman)

A key facet of the Strategy was the introduction of RWCs, proposed as a “gender-based, trauma-informed” alternative to prison that would focus on providing support services, such as mental healthcare and treatment for substance dependancy.

A 2021 blog post by Hannah Smallshaw, part of the Ministry of Justice’s RWC team, said: “We expect the RWCs' provision will be for women living in the local area, so they are able to be close to their families and RWC staff can support the women to maintain existing tenancies, if they already have stable accommodation. 

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“Some of the women will also be able to bring their children to live with them at the centre and, where they can’t, there will be comfortable spaces for family members to visit.”

In May 2020 it was announced that the first of the Ministry of Justice’s five RWC pilots would be located in south Wales, and £5.5million was awarded to support the project, with the aim of opening the Welsh centre by the end of 2021.

Proposed sites included Sunnyside House in Bridgend and the Atlantic Hotel in Porthcawl, but both plans were withdrawn following opposition by Bridgend Council.

The Ministry of Justice has been criticised for its The Atlantic Hotel, Porthcawl. (Picture: Jaggery, Geograph.org)

Pointing to the existing costs of running Bridgend’s Parc Prison and youth offending institute, council leader Huw David added that opening a RWC in Porthcawl “would risk jeopardising our ongoing efforts to attract further multi-million-pound investment”.

Asked whether the MoJ was any closer to finding a new RWC site, a spokesperson said they could offer “no update”. They declined to comment further, citing “commercial sensitivities.”

"All of this adds to the mountain of evidence that the justice system in Wales isn’t working,” Sioned Williams and Rhys ab Owen said.

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"The need to urgently establish alternatives to custody, especially for women, who are particularly vulnerable given the physical and mental damage that time in prison usually entails. 

“It is a national scandal that we are sending Welsh women to prisons in England, far away from their family and friends. The incarceration of a mother has a significant adverse impact on her children. 

"The clear solution as recommended by the Thomas Commission, is for the system itself to be devolved to Wales, alongside consistent publishing of disaggregated Welsh data.

The Ministry of Justice has been criticised for its Sunnyside House, Bridgend. (Picture: Google Maps)

“Only devolution will create a truly integrated system of community alternatives for women that is aligned closely to education, health and housing and properly monitor its development and progress."

The Welsh Government told The National: “The proposed Residential Women’s Centre remains a key feature of the Female Offending Blueprint, and links with the wider aims of providing a more holistic, trauma-informed approach to delivering services for women who find themselves involved in the criminal justice system.

“The Ministry of Justice is currently undertaking a site search in Wales for potential locations. 

“The Welsh Government continues to work in partnership with the Ministry of Justice and other key partners on the development of this important programme of work.”

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