Women’s prison Expectations

Women’s prison Expectations (PDF) (649 kB)

Women’s prison Expectations (Word) (430 kB)

This is the second edition of our Expectations which are specific to the treatment and conditions experienced by women in custody. This edition aims to focus more clearly on key outcomes for women in prison, while acknowledging important findings from recent reviews and reports and drawing on current thinking about what constitutes good practice. The underpinning ethos is that they should no longer be held in custody which was designed for men and merely adapted slightly to accommodate women. Our starting point in setting out specific outcomes for women in custody is that their needs and vulnerabilities are different from those of men in many ways. In achieving this we expect to see a fundamentally different approach to imprisoning women which is safe, decent and purposeful.

Full introduction to the women's prison Expectations

A small proportion of women in custody represent a high risk of harm to others. Women in prison will have distinct risks and needs, and they may offend for different reasons than men. Some women may have individual personal vulnerabilities that need to be safeguarded against in prison. Many will have experienced chaotic lifestyles involving substance misuse, mental health problems and homelessness. These are often the product of a life of abuse, victimisation and trauma (see Appendix I, note i). The specific vulnerabilities of women may contribute not only to their offending behaviour, but also to how they engage and respond to subsequent interventions (see Appendix I, note ii).

These factors influenced our approach to this review of Expectations. Our aim has been to set out more demanding and bespoke standards for women’s prisons. We hope that they support establishments in continuing to improve outcomes for women in their care.

We completed a review of a range of literature to inform our work. We found that much of the evidence about what is effective in reducing women’s reoffending is based on small-scale studies that, for a variety of reasons, are often not comparable. Nevertheless, our review identified some key themes which have been incorporated into these revised Expectations.

After much deliberation we have chosen to retain our four basic tests of a healthy prison. However, significant changes have been made to the content of each test to reflect the differing risks and needs of women and promote a new and sharper focus. For example, we have emphasised the role of safe and healthy relationships in underpinning women’s safety, while recognising the role that formal mechanisms such as reward schemes and adjudications have in encouraging positive behaviour. We have also reflected the cross-cutting influence of some issues. Therefore, relationships with children, families and others significant to women are prominent in the ‘Respect’ section, but also feature in other sections such as ‘Early days in custody’. It is important to note that the need to recognise and support women in dealing with the effects of trauma is included in all four of our tests. The impact of trauma on all aspects of many vulnerable women’s lives is now being recognised, and we wanted to reflect this in our approach.

These Expectations were drawn up after extensive consultation, including focus groups with women in custody, and are based on and referenced against international and regional human rights standards. This edition aims to bring Expectations up to date so that we can continue to fulfil our responsibility to deliver independent and objective assessments of outcomes for women in prison. This focus is in accordance with the UK’s responsibilities as signatory to the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

Each healthy prison test sets out the standards of treatment and conditions we expect an establishment to achieve. Each expectation is underpinned by a series of ‘indicators’, which describe the evidence that will help inspectors reach a judgement about whether the outcome is likely to have been achieved. The lists of indicators are not exhaustive, and they do not exclude an establishment demonstrating that expectations have been met in other ways. We hope they will not be seen as constraining or prescriptive checklists, but as informative and supportive guides to help achieve the desired outcomes.

Our public consultation on these Expectations ran between 18 November and 31 December 2020. We identified several key themes from the consultation responses. These key themes and our response to each are outlined below. You can also read them in this PDF (111 kB).

Themes from the consultation responses

The involvement of community agencies

A key theme in many responses was the involvement of voluntary, community and third sector agencies to help support women in prison and on preparation for their release. In response, we have strengthened references to the involvement of external agencies in providing services throughout the Expectations.

Promoting positive behaviour

Many responses queried why we had named this section ‘Behaviour management’. It was felt that this title did not sufficiently reflect the intention of enabling women rather than managing them. Recognising this, we have renamed this section ‘Promoting positive behaviour’ to reinforce our emphasis on supporting women to make changes for themselves. We also made a number of changes to the indicators in this section to move away from the language of management.


A common theme in responses was the need for a greater emphasis on identifying and supporting women appropriately in pregnancy, particularly in relation to unexpected or still births. We therefore strengthened the focus on this by adding a new expectation in the area of equality and diversity which considers whether the specific needs of pregnant women and those who have recently given birth are met. We also added additional indicators in the areas of early days and health.


Many submissions pointed to the importance of ensuring women with neurodivergent needs are supported appropriately. In response, we have added indicators within the areas of health and equality and diversity in relation to screening for neurodiversity and staff understanding of and response to neurodiversity.

Equality and diversity

In addition to the specific observations about equality and diversity noted above, we made some further changes to the equality and diversity indicators with the aim of improving the clarity of language we use. In addition, we added further indicators relating to the needs of older women.

Women serving short sentences

Many responses highlighted the specific needs of women serving short sentences. In response, we have developed our indicators within the area of rehabilitation and release planning. We amended the indicator in relation to recall to emphasise the need for women to be provided with prompt information about their recall which they understood. We also added indicators about the resettlement needs of women serving short sentences, including in relation to accommodation.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank those of you who have been involved in this work, by providing guidance to my team or by responding to our various consultation activities.

Charlie Taylor

Chief Inspector of Prisons

April 2021