International Women’s Day: Have we thought about women in prison?

On International Women’s Day 2023, Sandra Fieldhouse, Team Leader for Women, explores some of the particular needs of women in custody.

Fewer than 4% of the total prison population are held in women’s prisons. But there are distinct differences between the needs of women in custody and men. Firstly, as stated, there are fewer of them. Secondly, women tend to receive shorter prison sentences than men and often for less serious crimes. Thirdly, and perhaps most significantly, women describe having a much bigger and broader range of immediate issues on arrival – many are trapped in a cycle of substance abuse, mental health difficulties, homelessness and offending. While they have of course committed crimes that have led to their imprisonment, many women who end up in prison have experienced personal trauma such as being victims of abuse. Yet their time in prison on remand or serving very short sentences gives them little chance to address these problems, and plenty of time to spiral into further despair.

Data show that self-harm rates for women are, at times, seven times higher than men. At one prison we inspected, the rate had increased by 128% in three years. Our survey results over the last year show that 82% of women said they had some form of mental health problem, compared with 59% of men, and a third of women said they had felt suicidal when arriving in prison, compared with 14% of men.

Women, then, are in need of appropriate emotional support and, in many cases, specialist care from mental health professionals, during their time in prison. While most we surveyed and spoke to in the last year said that they had somebody they could turn to within their prison if they had a problem, less than three-quarters said that staff treated them with respect. At one prison the proportion of women who felt victimised by staff had doubled since we last inspected and many women described feeling ‘fobbed off’. This could be in relation to very basic problems. For example, no jail provides prison issue clothing made for women. If a woman didn’t have her own clothes, she would have to rely on prison issue men’s clothing. We have come across women who can’t even get a bra that fits them.

In most of the women’s prisons we have inspected recently, we have found an over reliance on responding to actual self-harm rather than trying to help the prisoner develop more positive coping mechanisms before getting into crisis.

Earlier this week we published a report from an inspection of HMP New Hall. Here, things were better. We found a safe and respectful prison and the Chief Inspector noted that:

‘… at the heart of the governor’s leadership approach was a commitment to prioritising key work. This provided a structure that marshalled and exploited the good relationships we saw and brought numerous benefits to the prison, and more importantly the women held there. It was no surprise that New Hall’s approach to key work was one of the better examples we have seen in the prison system.’

This commitment to regular contact reduced frustrations, and we saw benefits for women across all areas of prison life. There was a wide range of support for prisoners who had experienced trauma and the rates of self-harm were markedly lower than in similar prisons. This cannot be a coincidence.

For the moment, though, New Hall is an exception. Across the women’s estate as a whole self-harm rates are rising, women continue to spend too long locked in their cells and access to purposeful activity remains be poor.

It is clear that there is a long way to go to meet fully the needs of women in prison to reduce their immediate risk of harm to themselves and others and give them the best chance possible to go on to be successful when they are released. Some needs of women in prison are very complicated to address and require substantial resources, research and time to implement. But if there was just one thing I could change in prisons on this International Women’s Day, it would be this: get the basics right. Let women have prison-issue clothing that at least fits so they can feel dignified and comfortable while they attempt to make the best of their circumstances. It is such a simple thing, but it really matters.