Peterborough women's prison – respectful but undermined by deteriorating safety and concerns over force and strip-searching

Peterborough jail for women was found to be “not sufficiently” safe for prisoners, the first time in a number of years that a women’s jail was assessed at this level, according to HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP).

Safety had been ‘reasonably good’ at the previous inspection, in 2014, but in 2017 inspectors found this key aspect of prisoners’ lives had deteriorated. While violence was relatively low, women felt intimidated by verbal bullying and antisocial behaviour. The use of force by staff was “very high” and, as in 2014, inspectors were concerned by the over-use of strip-searching.

HMP & YOI Peterborough is the only prison in England and Wales that holds both women and men on a single site. Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, said: “We had concerns that instability on the male side was affecting the prison’s ability to focus sufficiently on the relatively more settled female prison.”

Peterborough held 360 women from the age of 18 but, as a resettlement prison, had a high “churn” and a complex population. Most women only stayed for a few weeks and, on arrival, 65% of women said they felt depressed and over a quarter said they felt suicidal. Two-thirds had mental health problems. Mr Clarke said that 60% of women had felt unsafe at some time since arriving and 28% felt unsafe at the time of the inspection. The proportion of women who said they have been victimised by prisoners or staff was higher than in 2014 or at similar prisons. Verbal bullying and antisocial behaviour were the main reasons for these perceptions.

Use of force was far too high “at more than double what we usually see in women’s prisons; we saw examples where not every opportunity to de-escalate the situation had been used.”

The use of strip-searching was also too high, Mr Clarke said, “which was particularly disappointing given the heavy investment in training staff about how past trauma can be reignited in the prison setting.”

The report noted: “Most security arrangements were proportionate but, as at our last inspection, the over-use of strip-searching remained a significant concern. Although the local searching policy stated that searches were intelligence-led, in practice a strip-search could be authorised by any senior officer. There was no central record of strip-searching carried out across the prison to enable managers to satisfy themselves of its proportionality.

“Staff and prisoners had a good general awareness of the trauma associated with abuse, rape, domestic violence and human trafficking. Over 250 staff had completed Becoming Trauma Informed training, and some prisoners had also participated. There had also been training on human trafficking.” However, the “focus was almost exclusively on the physical environment rather than on processes, such as strip-searching or relationships…and we felt there were opportunities to improve the impact of this work.”

Levels of self-harm were high in the prison but a small number of women accounted for a significant proportion of these incidents. Though they had some reservations, including the use of paper “strip-clothing” in some cases, inspectors found the care for women who self-harmed, and those with complex needs, was good. There were weaknesses in some aspects of health care for women. However, the environment of the jail was generally excellent and staff-prisoner relationships were good overall, though many staff were relatively new and inexperienced. Resettlement work for women to be released remained “very strong”.

Overall, Mr Clarke said:

“This is a more mixed report than when we last inspected this prison. We were particularly concerned about safety, and this is the first women’s prison in several years to have been assessed as ‘not sufficiently good’ in this area. The prison remained basically respectful, but serious deficits in health care meant that the assessment in this area was not as positive as at our previous visit. On the other hand, outcomes in purposeful activity had improved and resettlement remained very strong. The leadership team at Peterborough were motivated to provide good outcomes for the women, but told us they were distracted by some significant challenges in the male prison. A renewed focus on the female prison is now needed to ensure the concerns we have raised at this inspection are addressed.”

Michael Spurr, Chief Executive of Her Majesty’s Prison & Probation Service, said:

“Sodexo have responded swiftly and positively to the Chief Inspector’s report. There is a renewed focus on the specific needs of the women, and a dedicated Operational Manager has been appointed to drive safety improvements. The positive outcomes for Purposeful Activity and Resettlement demonstrate that high-quality work continues to be delivered at Peterborough and we will work closely with Sodexo to ensure the weaknesses identified in the Chief Inspector’s report are addressed.”


Notes to editors

  1. A copy of the full report, published on 23 January 2018, can be found here.
  2. HM Inspectorate of Prisons is an independent inspectorate, inspecting places of detention to report on conditions and treatment, and promote positive outcomes for those detained and the public.
  3. The Ministry of Justice awarded Peterborough Prison Management Ltd a 25-year contract to run HMP & YOI Peterborough when it opened in March 2004. Sodexo Justice Services is subcontracted to operate the prison.
  4. HMP & YOI Peterborough remains the only prison in England and Wales that holds both women and men on a single site.
  5. This unannounced inspection of the women’s prison took place between 11-21 September 2017.
  6. Please contact John Steele at HM Inspectorate of Prisons press office on 020 3334 0357 or 07880 787452, or at if you would like more information.