AN INFLUENTIAL CROSS-PARTY PANEL of MPs and peers have launched an inquiry  to look into growing evidence that prisons have a damaging impact on women’s health and well-being. The inquiry by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Women in the Penal System (APPG) will hear from expert witnesses and consider what steps should be taken to improve women’s health and prevent harm.

As well as examining how imprisonment can affect physical and mental health, the APPG will investigate to what extent prisons promote healthy lifestyles and provide nutritious food. It will also look at how prisons promote well-being and support the specific and diverse needs of women, many of whom have been victims of crime themselves.

Women account for about five per cent of the prison population in England and Wales. There were more than 7,000 receptions of women into prison in the 12 months to the end of September 2020. During this period, the number of incidents of self-injury recorded in women’s prisons rose by eight per cent.

Debbie Abrahams, Co-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Women in the Penal System, said: “From the worrying rise in incidents of self-injury to concerns about food, there appears to be wide-ranging and cumulative evidence that being in prison can have a damaging impact on a woman’s health and well-being. Our inquiry will examine this evidence thoroughly and consider what changes could be made to ensure that women get the support they need to live healthier lives.”

Jackie Doyle-Price, Co-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Women in the Penal System, said: “Our wide-ranging inquiry will consider not only the healthcare that women receive, but also how the wider culture in prisons can affect their health and well-being. We want to learn more about what is happening and find positive solutions that will help to make women healthier.”

Baroness Corston, Co-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Women in the Penal System, said: “When I looked into the treatment of women in the criminal justice system almost 15 years ago, I found that imprisonment was harsher for women because prisons and the practices within them had for the most part been designed for men.

“The inquiry beginning today presents an opportunity to revisit this problem and establish whether prisons are now meeting the specific and diverse health and well-being needs of the women in their care.”

The APPG receives research and administrative support from the Howard League for Penal Reform. MPs and peers will initially hear evidence from Dr Kate Paradine, Chief Executive of Women in Prison; Juliet Lyon, Chair of the Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody; and Naomi Delap, Director of Birth Companions.

The inquiry into health and well-being in prisons is the latest in a long line of inquiries by the APPG on issues affecting women caught up in the criminal justice system.

In September 2020, a briefing published by the APPG revealed that police resources were being wasted on arresting thousands of women inappropriately, holding them in custody and releasing them without charge. They included women who had contacted the police to report domestic incidents, only to end up being arrested themselves and then released with no further action.

In September 2019, the APPG reported that police were arresting women for trivial offences in the misguided belief that this would help them to get the support they needed from other services. The APPG had found that women who had been victims of violence and abuse were over-represented in the criminal justice system.

In October 2018, MPs and peers called for prison sentences of less than 12 months to be abolished for women. An APPG inquiry into imprisonment had found that many women were being sent to prison unnecessarily – in spite of overwhelming evidence that being in prison made matters worse for them.

The APPG comprises MPs and Members of the House of Lords from all parties and works to increase knowledge and awareness of issues around women in the penal system, as well as push for the full implementation of the recommendations of The Corston Report: A review of women with particular vulnerabilities in the criminal justice system.

* More information and briefings available here.

* Source: Howard League for Penal Reform