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Frances Crook's blog · 15 Feb 2021

Stop building women’s prisons

Frances Crook in front of office bookshelves

The government has announced that it is to increase the number of prison cells for women by 500. This is despite the number of women in prison falling and there now being 591 fewer women in prison than at this time last year.

The plan is to put prefabs and new build in existing prisons. There is some pretence that this will improve facilities for women, but in fact this is not true.

Expanding women’s prisons runs contrary to the government’s own published policy of reducing the use of prison for women and stemming the flow of women into the toxic criminal justice system. The Howard League has been supporting this policy and working with police to reduce arrests and divert women to services that meet their needs and reduce crime.

The number of 500 cells has been plucked out of the air and appears to be a knee-jerk reaction to the recruitment of 20,000 additional police officers. More police must mean more women arrested, apparently – well, not necessarily. We know that women who come into conflict with the criminal justice system are likely to be victims.

The government should back its own policy and not spend money on an admission of failure.

We are about to publish research showing that nearly half of the 90,000 women who are arrested every year face no further action. This is often because they are clearly in need of help and are not serious criminals. Very few women are convicted of serious violent crimes. So the government’s own policy of reducing the use of prison for women is the right one. The government should back its own policy and not spend money on an admission of failure.

The cost of building extra places will run to millions and, of course, the extra costs will last for generations. The cost of prisons is not simply in building them but also running them, year after year. These sums dwarf the money being given to women’s centres and organisations working in the community to prevent crime and support women – work that the Ministry of Justice’s own research shows reduces crime and turns women’s lives around.

Women’s prisons are a bloodbath. Self-injury by women in prison went up yet again last year. Women are so distressed in prisons that they cut themselves, they ligature, they develop eating disorders and obesity, they are deeply depressed. Putting more women in prison will not prevent crime, it will increase distress.

We need to stop this. We need to come together to stop this profligate waste of public money on the wrong policy. Money should go to women’s centres and housing and work and mental health support in the community.

Sign up to the Howard League’s campaign to oppose the building of extra prison places for women. 


  • […] John Howard Society in the UK is known as the Howard League.  The link is to a common problem in women’s corrections in both the UK and Canada: a growing number of women sentenced to prison and resulting overcrowding.  Chief Executive of the Howard League Frances Crook has no tolerance for accommodating the overflow by building more prison space – mostly adding on to existing prison real estate – and advocates for social funding for non-prison alternatives. […]

  • Mr Andrew Fleming says:

    You say:
    ” There is some pretence that this will improve facilities for women, but in fact this is not true.”
    What evidence do you have for this please?

    Prisons don’t work for rehabilitation of ANY offenders, so I’m against an increase in the prison estate, whether that be for men or women, but those who are ‘inside’ at least need decent accommodation, and not to be ‘doubling up’. If the new places are there purely to improve conditions (and the older cells with worse conditions then get closed, is this not a good thing in the longer term?

  • Kay Beaumont says:

    Women prisoners are extremely vulnerable and harmed by being in prison. Many of them should be given community sentences instead of prison. All need greater support when they leave prison. Money should be spent in keeping women out of prison and on rehabilitation when they offend.

  • Danica Darley says:

    When are they going to listen? We have such a body of evidence now that tells us just what a bad idea this is yet here we are again pandering to a Daily Mail rhetoric.

  • Olga Malyutina says:

    Woman in prison means children in care… or in best case scenario – with the relatives. There are 18000 children whose mothers are in prison. What future are we preparing for this kids? If mother is supported in the community, children get extra attention of schools and other organizations, that can support them and open the doors for them. Adding new prison spaces for women defies the concept of family as a major motivation for rehabilitation.

  • Jennifer Dunn says:

    I was wondering if Woman’s Hour BBC radio 4 have been made aware of this proposal. It might help to inform the public.

  • Lisa Armstrong says:

    Despite the evidence the government continues to lock up women who are victims of far more serious crimes than they are convicted/remanded for. The majority are not a danger to the public and could be managed in the community. We need to end the use of prison as a last resort for failures to provide long term and adequate funding for women and community services. Prison should be reserved for serious offenders only.

  • Rona Epstein says:

    From Rona Epstein, Coventry Law School

    Well said! You are totally right Frances. This is a planned dreadful misuse of public money. Women’s Centres are offered a meagre £2 million between all of them. They need proper and sustained, assured funding. More prison places is what we DO NOT need.
    I would like everyone to know about the particularly damaging effects of the imprisonment of pregnant women.


  • Hugh Terry says:

    Jail should only ever be a last resort.

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