What is going on in women’s prisons?

Inmate numbers and self-harm cases are rising despite government pledge to improve conditions

A female prison officer in HM Prison Styal
A female prison officer in HM Prison Styal in Cheshire
(Image credit: In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images)

Concern is growing over the state of women’s prisons after a series of studies identified issues with inmate numbers and wellbeing.

The government set out a strategy in 2018 to reduce the number of women in prison and support vulnerable offenders to turn their lives around.

But forecasts suggest the number of female prisoners will rise and recent reports have painted an “alarming” picture of what is happening behind bars.

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How many women are there in prison?

“Today there are 3,850 women in our prisons,” wrote David Gauke MP, the then justice secretary, in the 2018 strategy paper. “I want to see this fall, with fewer women in prison for short sentences.”

However, new official predictions suggest that the female prison population may rise by a third in the next three years, said The Guardian.

According to Ministry of Justice (MoJ) prison population predictions, overall numbers fell from 3,958 in February 2017 to 3,219 in July 2022, but the adult female prison population is expected to be 4,300 in July 2025, up by a third from 3,170 in July 2021.

The justice select committee of MPs said “there is yet to be any clear evidence” that women are being diverted away from prison despite pledges to develop other methods of punishment and rehabilitation.

MPs have questioned whether the government needs to create 500 extra places in women’s prisons and called for clarity on what the new cells will be used for, said Inside Time.

An MoJ spokesperson said: “Custody is used as a last resort for women and since we launched our female offender strategy in 2018, the number entering prison has fallen by nearly a third.”

Women currently make up around 4% of the UK prison population.

How commonplace is self-harm?

The report by the justice select committee found that, during 2021, there was an “alarming” rise in self-harm by women in prison. Although self-harm fell among male prisoners, in women’s prisons it rose by 4%, noted The Independent.

“The increasing level of self-harm in the female estate over the last decade is alarming and while the number of self-inflicted deaths is low, even one death is one too many,” said the report.

An MoJ spokesperson said: “The new prison places we are building will, alongside our wider reforms, improve access to education, healthcare and work, so female offenders can turn their lives around.”

What healthcare do female prisoners get?

Access to hospital services for female prisoners is poor, found a report from the Nuffield Trust last month. Researchers discovered that pregnant women in prison are almost twice as likely to go into pre-term labour compared to the general population.

In 2019/20 just under 30% of inpatient admissions by women in prison had a diagnosis of substance use recorded, while for male prisoners it was 19.8%.

Overall, found the report, women prisoners “face a series of challenges and risks in prison because of barriers to accessing health and care services”.

What happened during Covid?

An approach of mass solitary confinement imposed in UK jails during the Covid pandemic “turbocharged a prisons mental health crisis and put the safety of the public at risk”, according to another major study.

The Guardian said the findings, based on a detailed survey of more than 1,400 prisoners in ten jails, carried out by teams of peer researchers who were themselves prisoners, recorded “widespread trauma” as inmates were subjected to “one of the most extreme confinement regimes in the world”.

Depression and anxiety scores among inmates soared under lockdown and were almost five times higher than in the general population, the researchers found.

In some months during the Covid-19 restrictions, the rate of self-harm for women was seven times higher than for men, noted a recent report by HM Inspectorate of Prisons.

Is there any hopeful news?

A glimmer of hope can be found in the report, which found that a higher percentage of female prisoners felt they were treated well. Some 76% of women said most staff treated them with respect, compared with 70% of men.

Meanwhile, 84% of women inmates said they had somebody they could turn to for help, while just 70% of male prisoners said the same.

Also, in the light of the worrying figures on self-harm, MPs have praised the Prison Service for its work “to implement a trauma-informed approach across the female prison estate”, said Inside Time.

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