PRISONS IN ENGLAND AND WALES ARE UNABLE TO ADDRESS the physical and mental health needs of women and in fact make them worse, an inquiry by an influential cross-party panel of MPs and peers has found.

The All Party Parliamentary Group on Women in the Penal System (APPG) has uncovered alarming evidence of poor living conditions, rising self-harm and practices that compound the victimisation of women in prison, the majority of whom have experienced violence or abuse prior to their imprisonment.

The details are revealed in the first briefing from the APPG’s ongoing inquiry into women’s health and well-being in prisons. The inquiry was set up last year to hear from expert witnesses and consider what steps should be taken to improve women’s health and prevent harm.

Jackie Doyle-Price, Co-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Women in the Penal System, said: “From filthy living conditions to alarming evidence about self-harm, our inquiry has considered in great detail the impact that imprisonment has on women’s health and well-being.

“Expert witnesses have explained how prison environments that failed to promote good health before the pandemic have deteriorated further in the months and years since, as restrictions have kept women locked in their cells for up to 23 hours a day.

“This requires urgent attention. The government has published a Prisons Strategy White Paper, which recognises that women in the criminal justice system have complex needs. Unfortunately, however, the current proposals represent a missed opportunity to address the specific issues women face.

“The focus should be on stopping unnecessary use of custody – not prison expansion, which would only pull more women into a system that fails to provide the care and support they require.”

The briefing highlights evidence provided to the inquiry by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP), which described the poor living conditions in women’s prisons. In one prison, the watchdog found 20 women sharing two toilets. Previous inspections had found damp, mould and evidence of an ant infestation in Downview prison and living accommodation units that were “completely inappropriate” in Eastwood Park prison.

The inquiry heard that the restrictions imposed in prisons during the pandemic had not taken into consideration the specific needs of women and children. HMIP reported that one woman found family visits so upsetting that she had decided to stop them. She could no longer bear to see how distressed her children were at not being allowed to hug her.

Before the pandemic, self-harm rates for women in prison were five times the rates for men. This increased to up to eight times after the restrictions began, with some women self-harming daily.

The APPG heard that many women enter prison in poor health, and the prison environment gives them few opportunities to take control of their own health and well-being. Strategies for self-care, such as taking a walk or going for a run, are simply not possible, and physical activity has been limited further during the pandemic, when women have been kept in their cells for up to 23 hours a day.

The inquiry considered Ministry of Justice data showing that more than half of women in prison have reported experiencing emotional, physical or sexual abuse in childhood. More than half have reported being victims of domestic violence as adults.

The APPG found that imprisonment can compound women’s victimisation and feelings of powerless. Practices such as strip-searching and the use of restraints undermine feelings of safety and impact on relationships between women and staff.

The briefing states that most women in prison do not need to be there. In the year ending June 2021 there were 4,787 first receptions of women into prison, of which more than half were of women on remand. One in three was for a sentence of less than 12 months.

The APPG has called for the repeal of legislation that gives the courts the power to remand people in prison ‘for their own protection’. When this power is used, it is often due to a lack of appropriate mental health services in the community.

HMIP told the inquiry that, in August 2021, it had asked three women’s prisons for information about any individuals remanded in the previous 12 months who were so acutely mentally unwell that they should have been diverted from prison. The prisons identified 68 women; the outcome for most of these women was not known but, of those for whom the outcome was known, more than half were transferred to a secure hospital.

MPs and peers considered evidence from a range of sources indicating that health disparities relating to sex and ethnicity, which exist in the community, are amplified in prisons. The inquiry heard that women in prison were not always listened to or believed when they raised health concerns or asked for help. Some had missed hospital appointments because of a lack of prison staff available to escort them. Two babies have died in women’s prisons in the last three years.

The APPG found that the lack of continuity for women going in and out of prison was detrimental to their care. A prison sentence is disruptive to treatment or medication a woman might be receiving prior to custody, for example for drug or alcohol addiction. NHS Inclusion told the inquiry that women serving short sentences faced disruption to their recovery.

The UK Government’s Prisons Strategy White Paper applies only to England and Wales. Scotland has its own justice system.

* Read: Inquiry into women’s health and well-being in prisons: Briefing one here.

* In 2020, the APPG published a briefing focused on the courts’ power to remand people into prison for their own protection. Read Prison for their own protection: The case for repeal here.

* Source: Howard League for Penal Reform