ACUTELY mentally unwell women were being held in cells with scratches and bloodstains on the wall, evidence of previous occupants’ distress, an inspection report into HMP/YOI Eastwood Park, in England, has found.

The treatment and conditions in houseblock 4, which held those under supervision, in segregation, or awaiting transfer to a secure mental health facility, were described by one experienced inspector as the worst he had ever seen.

Charlie Taylor, Chief Inspector of Prisons, said: “Some of the most vulnerable women across the prison estate were held in an environment wholly unsuitable for their therapeutic needs. The levels of distress we observed were appalling. No prisoner should be held in such terrible conditions.”

Eastwood Park held 348 women at the time of the inspection, 83 per cent of whom reported having mental health problems. Self-harm was very high, but case management documents to support those at risk of self-harm and suicide were poor. Use of force had increased by around 75 per cent since the last inspection and was often used to stop women hurting themselves. The prison received the lowest grade for safety, which is unusual in the women’s estate.

The prison was fundamentally unequipped to support the women in its care, and leaders did not seem fully aware of the severity of the situation.

Mr Taylor said: “I was deeply concerned about the welfare of the staff who worked on unit 4; they were dedicated and courageous but were not adequately trained or qualified to support the women on the unit. They received no clinical supervision, despite being exposed to prisoners in great distress, some of whose levels of self-harm were extreme. Specialist input from others had dropped off over time and the therapeutic ethos had simply disappeared.”

Staff shortages were severely impacting the delivery of the day-to-day regime, and women were often unable to attend education, skills and work activities because of the lack of staff to get them there.

Inspectors said there were some pockets of excellent work at Eastwood Park, such as the Nexus unit, which offered specialist support for women with personality disorders. But the jail was failing in its most basic duty – to keep the women safe – and immediate and meaningful change is required to ensure that these very vulnerable individuals are suitably cared for.

Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust said: “One fact from this distressing report leaps out from the page – 83 per cent of the women locked up in this prison built for young men had mental health problems, all against a pervasive background of homelessness and substance misuse. The chief inspector can only report about the terrible conditions some of them were experiencing in an understaffed prison. But there must surely be a question for the government about why we continue to allow prison to be the place where all these problems have to be addressed. The money that the government is making available for better community services is welcome, but dwarfed by what it plans to spend building an additional 500 prison places for women. That’s not just a foolish way to spend public money, but a cruelty to the women the system will continue to fail.”

* Read the inspection report here.

* Sources: HM Inspectorate of Prisons and Prison Reform Trust