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Ministry of Justice must act as self-harm amongst women in prison continues to rise

In July of this year, the Ministry of Justice published the Safety in Custody statistical bulletin on deaths, self-harm and assaults in prison. The figures show that between June 2015 and June 2016 the total number of self-inflicted deaths in prison rose by 28% and between March 2015 and March 2016, incidents of self-harm rose by 27% and assaults by 31%.

Clearly, these statistics paint a bleak picture about the wellbeing of those in custody in England and Wales. Widespread staff cuts and overcrowding have evidently created a precarious and dangerous situation for those in prison at this time. However, when we scratch the surface and look at these statistics from a gender perspective, we can see that the situation of female prisoners is particularly grim. The number of women ending their own lives in prison has seen a sharp and worrying rise. Though women comprise just 5% of the total prisoner population, 10% of self inflicted deaths in prison are of women. In the year to March 2016, 11 female prisoners took their own lives. This is the highest number in 12 years.

Women in prison face particular problems that are not as prevalent among their male counterparts. Many female prisoners were victims of sexual and/or physical abuse as children. Many were victims of domestic violence and a large proportion spent their childhood in care.

Further, many female prisoners are mothers and the primary caregivers for their children. The Guardian states that each year, around 18,000 children are affected by their mother being sent to prison. The distress felt by women as a result of their being in custody is often exacerbated by the fact that for many of those who are mothers, their children are taken into care when they begin their sentence.

In his annual report, HM Inspector of Prisons has highlighted the fact that the population in women’s prisons tends to be more vulnerable. Last year inspections took place at HMP Holloway and HMP New Hall. At these prisons, 75% of women said they had a problem on arrival at the prison compared to 66% of men. 70% of women arriving in prison were currently on medication, 54% said they had emotional wellbeing or mental health issues and 41% stated that they had a problem with drugs or alcohol. Worryingly, nearly half of the female prison population said they had felt unsafe at some time in prison.

It is clear that the wellbeing of women in custody is in jeopardy. The prevalence of self-harm among female prisoners can only be described as horrifying. Female prisoners are a deeply vulnerable section of our population. When they are in custody, they are under the care of the state and it is the duty of the state to safeguard their wellbeing. The state must do its utmost to ensure that they do not suffer a decline in their mental health and engage in acts of self-harm or take their own lives as a result. It is clear that the state must face up to the self-harm epidemic among female prisoners.

Lawyers in the Civil Liberties Team at Hodge Jones & Allen regularly represent families at Inquests following deaths in custody. In these cases, it is often clear that the provision of mental health care in prisons falls below a reasonable standard. Individuals in crisis are often not given the care that they need and when they cry out for help in the midst of a crisis, their cries often fall on deaf ears.

Recent discourse has suggested that there is a dire need for a change in approach towards women and criminal justice. It is frequently contended that female prisons in the UK are not a suitable place for the women that they house. As I have said, female prisoners are highly vulnerable with many having complex needs. The large numbers of female prisoners being held in each prison means that these needs cannot be met and the safety and wellbeing of the women cannot be guaranteed.

Of the ten closed women’s prisons in the UK, only one holds less than 300 women (282). The rest hold over 300 women with the largest holding 527. Women’s prisons need to be smaller and house less prisoners as this would create a more therapeutic situation in which vulnerabilities such as mental health, drug and alcohol issues could be meaningfully dealt with. It would ultimately create a more rehabilitative environment that would yield lower rates of reoffending among female prisoners and ensure their safety throughout their sentence.

It would also be preferable to view custodial sentences as a last resort for women and to increase consideration of and investment in community support services. Where women pose risk only to themselves and not to others, custody is not necessarily the most appropriate place for them to be.

In this vein, of concern is the recent closure of HMP Holloway, the only women’s prison in London and the largest female prison in Europe. Though the establishment itself was both inadequate and unsuitable, it is worrying that the women from Holloway will now be moved to other prisons around the country. HMP Downview which is on the border of Sutton and Banstead is to receive 200 women from Holloway and the remainder will go to HMP Bronzefield in Ashford, Surrey. We must ask ourselves if, given the already alarming levels of self-harm and self-inflicted deaths among female prisoners, these establishments can reasonably cope with the extra numbers. It is also worrying that many women prisoners from London will now be further away from their families. For those in prison, weekly visits from their children and families are a lifeline. They are a frequent reminder of the need to work hard in prison in the hope of building a better life thereafter and making a fresh start. For many, these visits are a protective factor and constitute a barrier between vulnerable women and thoughts and acts of self harm. The fact that the vast majority of prisoners come from a low-income background means that their families may struggle to regularly visit their loved ones if they are no longer nearby.

It is clear that the steps taken by the government in closing Holloway and moving all its inhabitants to two prisons which already have their own vulnerable populations to contend with will do little to improve the precarious situation of women in prison in England and Wales.

As a society, we are judged on how we treat our most vulnerable members and if more is not done to ensure the safety and wellbeing of female prisoners then as a society we must hang our heads in shame. This precarious situation and prevalence of self-harm and self-inflicted deaths among women in prison simply must not be allowed to continue.

Written by Brid Doherty, Civil Liberties Dept.