‘My ex beat me up for 17 years but I ended up in prison – how is that justice?’

A woman who was beaten by her partner for 17 years and then sent to prison when she ‘lost it with him’ has slammed the criminal justice system for letting her down and says ‘prison does not work’.

Sarah was sent to prison for a year in 2018 after retaliating to what she described as horrific physical and mental abuse from her former husband.

She says that for vulnerable women like herself, who also suffer from mental health conditions, women’s centres would be a lot more useful than prison because they ‘would’ve provided support at the time I needed, instead of criminalising me at crisis point’.

Women’s centres are safe and confidential spaces set up to provide help for women who are at risk of or who have come into contact with the criminal justice system.

As well as supporting women who suffer from domestic violence, they also provide advice and guidance on issues such as housing, health, leaving prison and employment.

Sarah told ‘If I had access to a women’s centre, I don’t think I would have gone to prison in the first place.

‘I also would have walked away from the marriage a lot sooner’.

In 2008, her former husband broke her jaw and Sarah says she was pressured by his family and others not to press charges, and even when the case did eventually go to trial, she pleaded with the judge not to send him to prison.

She says he was handed a community sentence.

Women in Prison, a national charity, provided Sarah with support upon her release from prison and helped her regain custody of her children who were still with her former husband.

Sarah said: ‘If I didn’t have access to the Beth Centre run by Women in Prison, after my release, it’s a possibility I could easily have gone back in prison.

‘I worked for the Ministry of Justice for 10 years, I had never been in trouble before, I had no criminal convictions. They just don’t take those things into account’.

The charity runs a number of women’s centres, including the Beth centre and says that Sarah is just one example among many women for whom such women’s centres are more appropriate than prison.

Between October to December 2019, 64 per cent of the women the charity supported had disclosed current or previous experiences of domestic violence.

Over three quarters of women who were supported by the charity also had a mental health condition or concern.

Dr Kate Paradine, CEO of the charity Women in Prison said: ‘Sarah’s experience is far too common – women who experience domestic abuse are not provided with the support they need, instead they are criminalised when they reach crisis point.

‘This is also the experience of women who are sent to prison as a result of poor mental health, substance misuse and poverty. We should be focusing on prevention not punishment, providing women with the care and support they need in the community.

‘We know that community-based Women’s Centres are part of the solution. By accessing services in a women’s centre, women can receive broad range of support around domestic abuse, housing, mental health, substance misuse, debt, rebuilding family ties, education and employment.

‘This holistic support prevents women from coming into contact with the criminal justice system in the first place. It’s time for the government to invest in services like these rather than build new prisons.’

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: ‘We want to see fewer women entering prison and have invested £5,100,000 in alternatives, such as women’s centres where the underlying causes of criminality can be addressed.’