International Women’s Day

International Women’s Day

Claire Warrington, Doing Porridge Research Fellow

As James Brown told us, this is a man’s world… prisons worldwide are a very clear demonstration of this, just 4% of the total number of people in prison are women. Since the government published the Corston Report in 2007, it has been acknowledged that women and men in the criminal justice system have different needs, but 15 years on, the needs of women are still poorly met in many respects. The National Audit Office has recently published a document as part of the Ministry of Justice’s Female Offender Strategy, which seeks to improve outcomes for women. The report shows that on each of the key indices there are significant differences.  

Source: National Audit Office (2022) Improving outcomes for women in the criminal justice system (Key Facts: Page 4)

As the key facts above show, typically, women are convicted for shorter sentences but are more likely than men to reoffend. The Female Offender Strategy aims to offer earlier support in the community so that less women will receive custodial sentences and to reduce the number of women in prison, however the government is also planning to spend £200 million pounds creating prison space for another 500 women. It may be that these will replace existing ill-suited accommodation. However, the wording of the report does not suggest this is the intent. Currently, most women’s facilities are former men’s prisons or detention centres, that were designed for different purposes and make it more difficult for staff to meet women’s needs.

Because of the smaller capacity of the women’s estate, a major related issue is that women are often sent to prisons far outside their home area. For women requiring more specialised facilities, this can mean distances of hundreds of miles. It has long been acknowledged that community integration is a critical protective and rehabilitative factor for people in the criminal justice system. Furthermore, research conducted at the earlier stages of the pandemic indicated that the impact of loneliness and isolation may be more acutely felt by women in general.

Over half of respondents to a recently published HMIP survey of people in the women’s estate had children aged under 18. Here too, the devastating impact of the pandemic has been exacerbated, with visits at first having been stopped altogether and then resuming on a no-contact basis. The same HMIP briefing paper reported children having been bewildered and upset at not being able to hug their mothers. Fewer visits took place under these conditions as a result. Having a parent in prison is one of the recognised adverse childhood experiences that can have multiple damaging consequences on life chances, so the ripple effect of women serving custodial sentences can spread far beyond the individual.

Reports have noted the need to break intergenerational cycles of crime. If this aim is to be achieved, it is essential for significant changes to be made to the way in which being subject to the criminal justice system disrupts family life. Preventing intergenerational trauma is also vital. As with many men in prison, histories of trauma and especially experiences of being victims of violence corelate highly to those within the women’s estate. More than half of women under the National Offender Management Service in 2015 reported having been victims of domestic violence. It is also likely that there are high numbers of care leavers in the criminal justice system, however, no accurate data is collected on this.

There are well-established links between experiences of trauma to self-harm and suicide. During the pandemic, rates of self-harm in the women’s estate have been reported to have risen sharply, with one paper quoting a 14% increase. Government data suggests close to seven times more self-harm is inflicted by people in the women’s estate than in men’s establishments, and almost double the number of people entering women’s prisons disclosed drug and alcohol dependence. Substance misuse issues commonly arise from attempts to self-medicate symptoms of poor mental health, which again are often related to trauma. On arrival in prison, higher rates of depression, feeling suicidal and other mental health problems were reported by those in the women’s estate, although it should be borne in mind that rates of disclosure and help-seeking are often lower among men. The government white paper states the “primary ambition for the women’s estate [is for it to become] trauma informed and trauma-responsive.” HMP/YOI Styal is one prison commended for adopting this approach already, meaning all staff, not just those in the safer custody team, are involved in care for all women.

It is also well established that the majority of people in women’s prisons have been convicted of less serious offences, 80% of people entering women’s prisons in 2019 had been convicted of non-violent offences. Almost half of those individuals were starting sentences for theft with over three-quarters starting sentences of less than 12 months. Short custodial sentences are particularly disruptive to vulnerable people who are likely to lose accommodation, have existing engagement with support services interrupted and lose employment or benefits, all of which can be important protective factors against further offending. The impact for women who are likely to be primary care givers is also acutely felt by their dependents.  

Whilst much is known about the needs of women in prisons, there remains a lack of data on other areas, and this is one of the reasons, more research that is solely focused on people in women’s prisons is vital. Returning to the National Audit Office report, consistent issues were raised around the absence of clear outcome measures having been set in the three years after publication of the Female Offender Strategy. Without such measures being agreed upon, it will be impossible to measure the impact of the strategy, or even the extent to which it has been implemented. Successive attempts at penal reform have failed to achieve significant improvements for women. It must also be acknowledged that even more difficulties are faced by those in prison who are transgender and non-binary, where the criminal justice system is still struggling to achieve satisfactory care that meets the needs of the individuals. Here too, trauma informed environments would seem to be a fundamental first step.

Of course, whilst most women in prison have been convicted for non-violent crimes, this is not case for all women in prison. Furthermore, not all women in prison have been victims. And a history of trauma doesn’t excuse crime or mean that a woman should be exempt from consequences just because she is a woman. But the aim of the criminal justice system is rehabilitation as well as punishment, and to achieve this the system must move to a more gender responsive model.

References / Links

Corston, J. (2007) The Corston Report: a review of women with particular vulnerabilities in the criminal justice system. London: Home Office.

National Audit Office (2022). Improving outcomes for women in the criminal justice system

Ministry of Justice (2018) Female Offender Strategy.

Warrington, C. (2020). Women and suicide: the dangers of social isolation.
The Conversation  

HMIP (2022) Focus on Women’s Prisons: A briefing paper from HM Inspectorate of Prisons.

National Offender Management Service (NOMS). (2015). Better outcomes for women offenders. London: NOMS.

Howerton, A., Byng, R., Campbell, J., Hess, D., Owens, C., & Aitken, P. (2007). Understanding help seeking behaviour among male offenders: qualitative interview study. Bmj, 334(7588), 303. (2021). Prisons Strategy White Paper.

Fitzpatrick, C., Hunter, K., Shaw, J., & Staines, J. (2022). Painful lives: Understanding self-harm amongst care-experienced women in prison. Criminology & Criminal Justice, 17488958211067914.

Corcoran, M. S. (2010). Snakes and Ladders: Women’s Imprisonment and Official Reform Discourse under New Labour. Current Issues in Criminal Justice, 22(2), 233-251.

8 Mar 2022

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