The number of women recorded as homeless as they enter prison has nearly doubled since 2015, prompting calls to tackle the root causes of offending before turning to jail sentences.

There were 3,262 women recorded as being of no fixed abode on arrival in custody across the nine custodial institutions that hold women in 2018, up 71% from 1,909 in 2015, Ministry of Justice data shows.

Bronzefield prison, a jail near Staines-upon-Thames run by the private firm Sodexo, saw a sharp increase in the period with inmates homeless on arrival trebling from 338 to 1,021.

The prison is categorised as a local jail, accepting prisoners direct from the courts.

Peterborough female prison, also run by Sodexo, saw the number of homeless inmates more than double in the period from 205 to 557.

The figures were provided to the shadow justice secretary, Richard Burgon, after he submitted a written question to parliament.

Burgon said: “This truly shocking increase in the numbers of homeless women ending up in prison is an appalling indictment of our broken justice system.

“Our justice system is punishing people who, in many ways, are themselves victims. Prison is all too often the very worst place for people who desperately need help in tackling the underlying problems not just of homelessness but also poverty, mental ill health and substance addiction that led to them being jailed in the first place.

“Many of these women will simply return to homelessness after serving just a few weeks in jail. Instead of wasting stretched justice resources on such prison sentences, we need to end the revolving door between jail and homelessness.

“That means tackling problems at their root by providing people with the support, including the homes they need, to break the cycle of reoffending.”

According to the Prison Reform Trust, 7,745 women were sent to prison during 2018.

Christina Marriott, the chief executive of the Revolving Doors Agency, a charity that works to reduce reoffending, said: “These shocking figures show a system that punishes already disadvantaged women.

“Prisons cannot and should not pick up the pieces where society has failed to provide an adequate safety net. Sending homeless women to prison for a short spell embeds the disadvantage and we know many will be simply released with nowhere safe to live yet again.

“Many of the women being sent to prison will not only be homeless but will also have addictions, mental ill-health and have been victims of domestic violence. This revolving door has got to stop.

“A first step is to restrict the use of shortsighted short prison sentences for both women and men convicted of non-violent offences in favour of smarter alternatives. When in the community, services need to work together to secure a safe space for women to live; it is the essential first step for people to build a new life.”

In June last year, the justice secretary, David Gauke, outlined a new female offender strategy with a focus on community services.

It included pilots for five residential women’s centres across England and Wales, increased focus on community provisions and a decision to drop plans to build community prisons for women. In addition, Lord Farmer, an advocate of prison reform, was commissioned to conduct an in-depth review into family ties.

In the response, the justice minister Edward Argar said: “Everyone should have a safe and suitable home to live, having somewhere to live gives people a stable platform from which to access health services, hold down a job and reduces the likelihood of them reoffending.

“In keeping with this the government published its rough sleeping strategy in August 2018, launching a £100 million initiative to reduce and ultimately eliminate rough sleeping across England.

“Our reforms to probation are designed to encourage long-term rehabilitation and ultimately reduce reoffending – and the first step in this is ensuring that everyone leaving prison has access to secure and stable accommodation.

“We are improving support for offenders leaving prison with a £22m investment in through-the-gate services which will help to strengthen ties with key partners, including the third sector, local authorities and the police.

“In addition, the female offender strategy sets out our vision and plan to improve outcomes for women in the community and custody. We want to see fewer women coming into the criminal justice system, a greater proportion managed successfully in the community, and better conditions for those in custody.”

Source: The Guardian