A PRIVATELY-RUN PRISON for female adults and young offenders, HMP/YOI Bronzefield, saw its scores drop in the areas of respect, and release and rehabilitation planning in its latest inspection.

Inspectors from HM Inspectorate of Prisons judged outcomes for women in all four healthy prison tests – safety, respect, purposeful activity, and release and rehabilitation planning – to be ‘reasonably good’. Encouraging findings in education and purposeful activity were let down by a lack of support and proper preparation for women on release. These struggles were exacerbated by an ongoing staff shortage in the prison.

Inspectors were concerned to find that 65 per cent of women were leaving Bronzefield, the largest women’s prison in the UK, without safe and sustainable accommodation. Staffing cuts in domestic abuse support and the resettlement team created further weaknesses in release planning.

Charlie Taylor, Chief Inspector of Prisons, said: “Without stable, safe accommodation many women are liable to have mental health relapses, return to substance misuse and become involved in crime on release, creating more victims and, at great cost to the taxpayer, repeating the cycle and undoing the good work of the prison.”

Bronzefield’s health care had undergone some improvements. Leaders had shown a genuine commitment to addressing the health-related recommendations made by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman in the wake of the death of a baby born at the prison in 2019. This included the development of a mental health perinatal team and enhanced working links with maternity services in the community. But in other areas health care provision was lacking. A shortage of pharmacy staff led to delays in medication provision and disorganisation in storing medicine, and prisoners with longer-term health conditions, such as asthma, did not have a care plan.

Inspectors were pleased to see that the 73 per cent of prisoners who identified as having a mental health condition were being decently cared for. Mental health services were responsive and provided a good range of interventions. The psychological therapies team delivered good support through different therapeutic styles. Too many women, however, were still being held in custody as a ‘place of safety’ for acute mental health problems – a phenomenon which is particularly common in female prisons. The prison was collecting data about this but more needed to be done outside of the prison system to establish the true extent of the problem and begin to address it.

The prison had responded well to the challenges of pandemic restrictions and inspectors were reasonably satisfied with the amount and quality of purposeful activity offered to the women. In a survey, 61 per cent of inmates said they could go to the gym or play sports twice a week or more, compared with 36 per cent at other women’s prisons.

There was a range of exercise sessions for different groups, including morning yoga for those in the shielding unit and ‘buggy fit’ classes for mothers in the mother and baby unit. Access to the library was good and the provision was excellent. The survey showed that far more women than at other prisons inspected recently had a positive view of the library.

Mr Taylor said: “Bronzefield is a well-run prison with a strong, experienced director and leadership team who are committed to improving outcomes for women. They have shown a willingness to consider innovative ways to do this and desire to influence national policy.

“They will inevitably be disappointed with the scores in this inspection which have declined in the areas of respect and rehabilitation and release planning, but there is much to build on after a difficult two years.”

On the Inspectorate’s website, Sandra Fieldhouse, who leads on the inspection of women’s prisons, has written a blog in which she observes: “A woman living on the streets, or being passed from pillar to post in temporary or unsuitable accommodation, is far more likely to reoffend and to fall back into the vicious cycle that got her into prison in the first place For some prisoners, this pattern appears to be an accepted fact. Only last year, during an inspection, we were told that one woman released some days earlier had left her personal belongings at the prison for safe keeping because she expected to be returning soon.

“At Bronzefield, the largest women’s prison in Europe with capacity for about 500 people, almost two-thirds left the establishment without a safe, suitable and sustainable place to live for more than 12 weeks. This is shocking but not unusual.”

Ms Fieldhouse continues: “Women often tell us that they turn down some options because of safety concerns – such as a hostel shared with men. Some women have suffered a history of domestic violence and are left with an impossible choice between returning to live with an abusive partner or sleeping on the streets.”

Bronzefield opened in June 2004 and was the first purpose-built, privately operated prison for women. In 2016, it increased its capacity following the closure of HMP Holloway. It accepts women directly from over 90 courts and is a resettlement and reception prison that also holds restricted status prisoners (those considered to require specific management arrangements). At the time of this inspection, the establishment held 468 women.

* Read the inspection report here.

* Read Sandra Fieldhouse’s blog, Ending homelessness for women on release is vital to cut cycle of reoffending here.

* Source: HM Inspectorate of Prisons