A WOMEN’S PRISON has been assessed by HM Inspectorate of Prisons in England and Wales as poor for safety in a “rare and unexpected finding” during a recent inspection, which identified very high violence and self-harm and inadequate care for vulnerable women.

The finding at HMP & YOI Foston Hall in Derbyshire is the first score of poor – the lowest – for the safety of women prisoners since the Inspectorate developed its current framework of healthy prison assessments more than a decade ago.

Foston Hall held 272 women when inspectors visited in October and November 2021. Chief Inspector of Prisons Charlie Taylor has published a report on that inspection.

It is accompanied by a paper identifying key findings in the inspection of five women’s prisons – Low Newton, Styal, Send, Downview and Foston Hall – in the last six months. While identifying good practice in some prisons, the paper also raises serious concerns about high rates of self-harm and vulnerability across the women’s prison estate, which accounts for only around four per cent of prisoners in England and Wales.

Mr Taylor said Foston Hall was last inspected in 2019, when inspectors found outcomes to be reasonably good against all four tests of a healthy prison. The 2021 inspection, however, proved less positive and, in common with many establishments emerging from the Covid-19 pandemic, inspectors found a deterioration in the daily regime and the provision of purposeful activity. “Of greater concern, however, were the safety outcomes which we judged to be poor, our lowest assessment. This is a rare and unexpected finding in a women’s prison… The evidence for this judgement was compelling.

“Neither the prison’s assessment of vulnerability, nor the support offered to newly arrived women were good enough. The unpredictability of the regime was contributing to tensions on the wings and, we suspected, increased violence, particularly against staff. Violence was now very high.”

The use of force by staff had doubled since the last inspection and was the highest in the women’s estate.

Levels of self-harm at Foston Hall were also the highest in the women’s estate and two women had taken their own lives since 2019. Women were making 1,000 calls a month to the Samaritans but the prison had no strategy to reduce self-harm or improve the care for those in crisis. Messages left on the prison’s crisis hotline had not been checked for six weeks and women had not had access to Listeners – prisoners trained by the Samaritans – since March 2020. Many women were segregated while there were concerns about their self-harming behaviours. The segregation unit was a poor environment and the regime was limited.

Mr Taylor commented: “The response to women in crisis was too reactive, uncaring and often punitive… It was no surprise that in our survey nearly a third of women told us they felt unsafe.”

A new governor had been appointed a year ago. A priority for prison leaders “must be new thinking, followed by action, about how to make a women’s prison safer.”

The briefing paper on five inspections of women’s prisons reports that:

  • In HMI Prisons’ surveys, far more women than men reported mental health problems on arrival and almost double the number of women than men felt suicidal. More women than men entering prison declare a problem with drugs and alcohol.
  • Self-harm is much more common for women in prison than men and has increased during the Covid-19 pandemic to record levels. In some months during the Covid-19 restrictions, the rate of self-harm for women was seven times higher than for men.
  • Some women use self-harm as a day-to-day coping mechanism or in response to triggers which often relate to current or previous trauma. In one inspection, about 10 women accounted for 66 per cent of all self-harm incidents.
  • Some women end up in prison due to a lack of mental health provision elsewhere, but nobody really knows the full extent of this problem.
  • Some warrants authorising imprisonment clearly state that a prison is being used as a ‘place of safety’. “Nobody would agree that prisons are the right place to keep women who are acutely unwell,” the paper comments.

On a positive note, at HMP Low Newton, an ‘early days in custody’ project worker received referrals from court to offer immediate individual and practical help to new arrivals, with the aim of addressing their main concerns and reducing the likelihood of self-harm.

The better models of care seen by inspectors were underpinned by targeted support for women who self-harmed regularly, based on meaningful day-to-day engagement, proactive care to help women avoid getting into crisis in the first place and providing support for their often-complex needs.

At HMP & YOI Styal, care was enhanced by individual psychological work, day-to-day action plans for wing staff and importantly, involvement in meaningful employment, education, or training. At HMP Send, further support was provided to women who were likely to be more vulnerable and to self-harm at weekends.

Fifty-two per cent of women said they had children under 18 years old. Much of the family engagement work ceased at the start of the pandemic and was very slow to restart. Face-to-face visits had been suspended for many months. Low Newton used video calling innovatively, however. One mother was able to video call regularly her five children in two different foster homes; another mother was able to call her son in a secure hospital with the social worker present; and another took part in a parents evening at her child’s school.

Commenting on the report and briefing paper, Deborah Coles, Director of INQUEST, said: “Foston Hall prison is a dangerous and harmful place for women. Horrendous rates of self-harm, exacerbated by the impact of Covid and restricted regimes, punitive treatment and segregation for women in crisis. This is inhumane and unjust.

“The reality for many women in prison is stories of domestic violence, abuse, addictions and mental ill health. Ministers continue to expand the women’s prison estate and ignore the compelling evidence from inquests, inspections and reviews of the urgent need for structural change.

“Government must work across health, social care and justice departments to dismantle failing women’s prisons and invest in specialist women’s services. Without this the harms, deaths and devastating impact on women and their families will continue.”

* Read the inspection report on Foston Hall here.

* Read the women’s prisons briefing paper here.

* Sources: HM Inspectorate of Prisons and INQUEST