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Howard League blog · 8 Mar 2024

Our one-size-fits-all approach to prison is failing women and girls

More than 15 years since the damning Corston Report, the picture for women in prison is worse than ever. Despite the report calling for a radical change in approach, today there are 3,651 women in prison in England and Wales — a 10% increase on the previous year, and there are more than twice as many women in prison now as there were 30 years ago.  

But the Corston Report was not simply about reducing numbers; it served to put women’s needs and circumstances firmly on the agenda and prompted a fundamental re-think about women in the criminal justice system.

Most women entering prison to serve a sentence have committed a non-violent offence, they tend to commit less serious offences than men and most do not pose any serious risk of harm to the public. And we now know that the reasons that women end up in prison are often complex.

Nearly two-thirds of women in the criminal justice system have experienced domestic abuse; many have experienced childhood trauma, mental health problems or homelessness. And entering the criminal justice gateway invariably makes things worse, not better. It can mean women lose their jobs and their homes, making it harder to address the problems which brought them into contact with the police in the first place.

A criminal conviction and particularly a custodial sentence can affect a women’s ability to care for her family, causing lasting harm to her children, grandchildren and wider family.  

Although the Corston Report sparked numerous initiatives, reports, strategies, commissions and groups that embedded an understanding about women’s distinct needs, many of these laudable initiatives have not been sustained.

The female prison population is rising at a staggering rate. There are 10% more women in prison today than this time last year, compared with a 5% increase in the male estate.

The proportion of women on remand is both higher than in the men’s estate and growing at a faster rate, and vulnerable women are still remanded to custody as a ‘place of safety’, while the government is struggling to keep women in prison safe.

The implementation of the Female Offender Strategy has fallen short.

For what it’s worth, the policy rhetoric surrounding women in the criminal justice system has remained strong. The Female Offender Strategy, published by the government in 2018, looks great on paper.

The strategy includes the need to see fewer women entering the criminal justice system as a strategic priority, and recognises that women who come into contact with the criminal justice system are among the most vulnerable in society. And that their offending can be prevented if their needs are addressed at an earlier stage.

Unfortunately, regardless of its sentiment, the implementation of the Female Offender Strategy has fallen short. The All Party Parliamentary Group on Women in the Penal System found that the Ministry of Justice has not prioritised investment into the programme, nor set out clear plans to ensure the Strategy led to uniform policy change. 

And while reports and strategies continue to be debated and published, women in prisons continue to suffer. Just three days after publication of the Female Offender Strategy Delivery Plan, a report on women’s prison Eastwood Park was described as holding ‘acutely mentally unwell women’ in ‘cells with scratches and bloodstains on the wall’. Inspectors with considerable experience described conditions and treatment in the prison as the worst they had ever seen. The report detailed conditions in the prison as ‘appalling’ and ‘dilapidated’, with blood spatters and extensive scratching across walls indicating the intense trauma suffered by the women imprisoned.

According to the most recent Ministry of Justice figures, self-harm incidents rose by 11% in men’s prisons and by 38% in women’s prisons, to the highest level in in the 12 months to the end of September 2023. And is self-harm rocketing not only across the women’s estate, but also the children’s estate with shocking rates of self-harm among girls. 

Our one-size-fits-all approach to prison for men and women is failing, and it is particularly failing women and girls. Just this week we have seen the disastrous impact of young girls being held in a boys’ prison in Wetherby, where all-male teams of officers were found to have twice forcibly restrained a girl to remove her clothing to prevent her self-harming. It is devastating that girls in distress who need care and support are being traumatised further in prison, and we have urgently written to the Secretary of State for Justice to remove these vulnerable girls from Wetherby.  

Prisons are simply not healthy environments, not for men and particularly not for women, who experience disproportionately higher levels of mental health problems, substance misuse, suicide, and self-harm.

More than 60% of female prisoners in the UK are mothers, and it is estimated that at least 100 babies are born to women in prison in England and Wales each year. The risks of imprisonment to the physical health of pregnant women and their babies are well documented and shocking, with data showing that women in prison are seven times more likely to suffer a stillbirth.

In 2019, we saw the case of Rianna Cleary, an 18-year-old who had to bite through her umbilical cord, having given birth in her cell after having trying and failing to get help via her cell bell for over 12 hours. Rianna’s baby, Aisha, did not survive. No one looking at Rianna’s experiences or the tragic and preventable death of her baby can think that prison is a place for an expecting mother or a newborn child.  

On International Women’s Day, we look back at the work that has been done for women in prison, but also sustain our call for the services, policies and investments so desperately needed.

Imprisonment can add to the victimisation of women, the majority of whom have experienced violence or abuse prior to prison. And these facts are all the more stark as the majority of women in prison do not need to be there. Over half of the receptions into prison are of women on remand and a third are of women serving short sentences.

Some women, who are acutely unwell, are being held in prisons as ‘a place of safety’ only due to lack adequate provision available in the community. For years, the Howard League have been campaigning to end this archaic practice which puts people in prison who should be in hospital beds, and just last month we again called on the government to resurrect the draft Mental Health Bill and finally give these people the resources and support they need.     

But that is not to say that progress is not being made. In October 2023, the government announced sentencing reforms limiting the use of short sentences, which – if enacted – would have a significant impact on the women’s prison population. The last 10 years have also seen progress in areas such as the network of “one-stop-shop” excellent women’s centres across the country.

Amazing organisations such as Working Chance, Birth Companions, Women in Prison, the Nelson Trust and others in the sector are doing vital work to address the challenges of women in the penal system, and to provide services and support to vulnerable women.  

As we mark International Women’s Day, it is important to look back at the work that has been done for women in prison, but also to sustain our calls for the key services, policies and investments that are desperately needed.

More investment in women’s centres is needed if there are to be serious alternatives to custody and to help prevent women at risk entering the criminal justice system in the first place.

More investment in community mental health support services is needed for to prevent women ending up in, and returning to, prison.

More investment in supported housing for women is needed for a significant impact on (re)offending levels and homelessness, and housing must be a cornerstone of any serious criminal justice strategy.

We have now seen countless papers, reports, briefings and strategies outlining the same basic necessities to address the women’s prison population. It is well beyond time that we move these ideas from paper to reality.  

Andrea Coomber KC (Hon.) 



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