The rate of self-harm amongst women in prison is eight times that of men and an increase from five times higher prior to the pandemic, according to the report of a cross-party group of MPs and peers. The first briefing from an ongoing inquiry into the damaging impact of prisons on women’s health and wellbeing reveals poor living conditions in women’s prisons, the damaging impact of pandemic restrictions, and that most women in prison do not need to be in custody.
The briefing states that in the year ending June 2021, there were 4,787 first receptions of women in prison, of which more than half were women on remand. One in three of these women had received a sentence of less than 12 months. The All Party Parliamentary Group for Women in the Penal System is calling for the provision within the bail act that states people can be remanded in custody for their own protection to be removed. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons told the inquiry that within three women’s prisons they had identified 68 women who were so mentally unwell they should have been in a clinical setting. This follows reports earlier this year that in a Derbyshire women’s prison, a thousand calls were being made to the Samaritans each month.
The briefing also addresses health disparities for women in prison, indicating inequalities in access to healthcare in the community are amplified in prison. Submissions from Birth Companions and the Nuffield Trust showed pregnant women in prison miss pregnancy related appointments more often than expected, and one in 10 women who give birth while serving a custodial sentence do so outside of a hospital setting.
Speaking to Woman’s Hour on Radio 4 on Monday, the Co-Chair of the APPG on Women in the Penal System, Jackie Doyle-Price MP, said: ‘The truth of the matter is people have a lot of prejudice about people who end up in prison, which is that they’re all seriously bad people and need locking away… most women in prison are victims of crime themselves, they end up in a very dysfunctional way of life, and find themselves in prison. When I look at our prisons, I don’t see thousands of hardened criminals. I see symptoms of state failure.’
Doyle-Price continued: ‘Our whole prison system is designed around imprisoning thuggish, violent men in a cell six foot by four foot, but when we look at women prisoners they tend to be convicted of sentences which are not violent, they tend to be convicted of things with short sentences. Ten years ago there was a recognition that women needed to be housed in more therapeutic settings than traditional prisons, but we seem to have gone backwards.’