Women are suffering in prison

A system designed for men cannot cope.


In a basement office in Camberwell, Wendy Rowley, a black woman with a long pony tail and piercing blue eyes, is talking on her phone and wondering exactly where Amy could be. Amy doesn’t seem to know where she is herself, but it sounds like she’s on a bus. From listening to the automatic voice in the background, Wendy thinks she might be near London Bridge.

Amy is 30 years old. She was born into a chaotic family in south London. When she was a child, her stepfather would violently abuse her two brothers, and he would sexually abuse her and her twin sister. Two years ago, it got too much for Amy’s sister: she took her own life.

Amy suffers from bipolar disorder and depression. She is also HIV positive. She has been charged for a string of minor offences, as have the rest of her family: they are all PPOs (prolific and priority offenders). Two days ago she was released from prison for the umpteenth time. She had been incarcerated at HM Prison Drake Hall, a women's closed prison near the village of Eccleshall in Staffordshire.

Amy didn’t know how to get back to London, so two officers drove her to a hostel in Vauxhall, which had been allocated to her by Lambeth Council. Wendy, who leads the WIRE (Women’s Information and Resettlement for Ex-offenders) project at a charity called the St Giles Trust, went to see her.

Her first concern was that Amy wouldn’t be able to medicate herself properly. She needed to take 15 different tablets a day. She was being dispensed 140mg of Methadone in prison (down to 90mg on release), was on antivirals for the HIV, and was also on temazepam and co-codamol. She looked a state - dressed like a little boy, Wendy thought - and was semi-conscious from all the drugs.

Wendy suspected the heavy dosage of Methadone had in part been prescribed by prison staff so she’d be easier to handle. She’d seen it before. Amy is like a child in some ways; for example, she only eats a certain type of pasta, or she’ll make a fuss. Wendy talked to Amy’s probation worker, who said she’d clearly end up back in prison in a couple of weeks.

The next day, at 6am, Wendy received a phone call from Amy’s mother. Amy had been discharged from hospital a couple of hours earlier and rolled up at the family home. The mother didn’t want her there, because she knew that when the family got together, they always started taking drugs. The family home wasn’t what Amy’s probation worker would deem a “safe address”.  The problem, Wendy knew, was that the hostel in which Amy was staying wasn’t exactly made for her requirements either. It was a “wet” hostel - there were people drinking and some using drugs - and Wendy’s biggest fear was that other residents would steal her medication to get high themselves.

Amy was supposed to be in there for a set period while her needs were assessed by a range of statutory workers, all of whom had very specific roles. A key worker had been allocated, but he didn’t seem to have any awareness at all of how her medication had to be administered: it couldn’t just be left to her. Amy also had to see her probation workers, but how much could be done in an hour-long meeting to address the various issues - the mental illness, the drug addiction, the need for suitable housing?

Already, Amy was telling fibs, claiming that she wasn’t actually on probation - she didn’t like the fact that Wendy got strict with her, saying that she’d have her escorted to every appointment. Wendy knew where Amy really belonged, and that was a residential mental health home. The trouble was that everything seemed geared for her to go back to prison instead.

And that leads us to the present, when Amy wandered off, and Wendy had to track her down. At the time, she was supposed to be going to a doctor in order to get a reference for her Employment and Support Allowance. It was her one and only chance: if her benefits didn’t kick in, her rent wouldn’t get paid. If her rent didn’t get paid, she’d end up a NFA (no fixed abode), and then she’d inevitably go back to prison.

Time and again Wendy had found the probation services hadn’t helped when this happened, unless she’d forced their hand and gone to the council’s Homeless Persons’ Unit. Demand is high for this service. Occasionally she’d arrive at the town hall at 9.30am and still be there after 12 hours, trying to find a place for one of her clients. Even if they did get housed, sometimes they’d still end up back in prison after being kicked out for antisocial behaviour: they simply didn’t know how to act like a normal member of society. At this moment in time, Amy’s future does not look bright.


I tell Wendy that her work brings into relief two issues that have interested me for years. One: the fact there is a very fine line between those serving short-term prison sentences and the mental health services; a nuance that politicians are reluctant to acknowledge to the electorate. Two: there are significant gaps in the state provision for chaotic individuals, and people like Wendy end up filling them in, with little money or time on their side.

Her project – which is set to run out of funding next year - has been a success. She deals with 100 clients a year, and just under half of them reoffend (better than it sounds - the national rate is 88 per cent), and the average number of offences halves for a 12 month period, compared with the 12 months before. But it’s just her, an intern, and two volunteers. How many gaps can they hope to plug?

She says:

A lot of the women I deal with have misdiagnosed mental health conditions. In prison they classify a lot of them under schizophrenia – but usually it’s borderline personality disorder, brought on by substance abuse or trauma. In prison they use methadone to keep them calm. The problem is it makes them very dysfunctional when they come out of custody, because everything‘s done for them. They tend to lean on us a lot. We’re meant to be a 9-5 service, but I get calls from 6 in the morning to 12pm at night – their families will have cut these girls off. These things aren’t dealt with early in their history: sometimes it feels like you’re just a band aid, patching people up before they get sent back to prison. The local authority services don’t have joined up thinking.

Wendy’s an ex-offender herself - she was sentenced to eight years inside for drugs offences. It gives her a strong insight into the lives of her clients:

I didn’t see my kids for 18 months when I was inside, because the prison was so far from London. So you miss the ongoing support from your family when you’re in jail. A lot of them find the family unit has broken down when they get out: the child’s either in foster care or has been adopted. That tends to keep them in the cycle – the women who keep custody of their children become more grounded because they want to sort things out for their families. The others: they stay in cramped houses, do sex work, and then when they’ve had enough or want somewhere to sleep they put themselves in jail. I’ve had women deliberately getting arrested because the people they’re staying with are taking advantage of them.

Wendy is critical of short-term prison sentences: “These women are deemed prolific offenders, but they live chaotic lives - drug addiction, sex work - stuff like that. I just feel locking a woman away – I know from personal experience that you have to look at the bigger picture. The kids go into foster care so that’s more money from the Government, and then quite often they get in trouble so the whole cycle starts again. Not all kids can go to grandparents. You have to think about the psychological effect. Some of these sentences are disproportionate – I don’t think someone should go to prison for not paying their council tax.”


In 2010, Nick Hardwick, the new Chief Inspector of Prisons, visited HM Prison Styal (a closed category prison for women). Shortly after, he said in a lecture at the University of Sussex that the self-mutilation and despair in the Keller Unit was so severe it “kept me awake at night”. He concluded: “I hope we will look back on how we treated these women in years to come, aghast and ashamed.” Descriptions like this, about this prison alone, had been repeated for a decade.

Six years before this, the previous Chief Inspector of Prisons had visited Styal and found women who had been self-harming were being detained in punishment cells. One had even been punished for trying to hang herself.

Two years later, the prison ombudsman had reported into the death of six women at the prison. The report lead the Home Office to announce a review of vulnerable women in the justice system, to be led by Baroness Jean Corston. Perhaps it wasn’t expecting her findings to be so stark. Even by its fourth page, the findings were extraordinarily terse.

These were the women I saw in prisons:

■ Most were mothers. Some had their children with them immediately prior to custody, others had handed them to relatives or their children had been taken into care or adopted.
■ Some were pregnant. Some discovered they were pregnant when they had no idea that that could be a possibility.
■ They were drug users. It was not uncommon to have £200 a day crack and heroin habits disclosed.
■ They were alcoholics.
■ They had been sexually, emotionally and physically abused.
■ They were not in control of their lives.
■ They did not have many choices.
■ They self harmed.
■ They had mental health problems.
■ They were poor.

Then she went on to describe a ten-day period in one of the prisons she visited: 

“■ A woman had to be operated on as she had pushed a cross-stitch needle deep into a self-inflicted wound.

■ A woman in the segregation unit with mental health problems had embarked on a dirty protest.

■ A pregnant woman was taken to hospital to have early induced labour over concerns about her addicted unborn child. She went into labour knowing that the Social Services would take the baby away shortly after birth.

■ A young woman with a long history of self-harm continued to open old wounds to the extent that she lost dangerous amounts of blood. She refused to engage with staff.
■ A woman was remanded into custody for strangling her six-year old child. She was in a state of shock.
■ A woman set fire to herself and her bedding. The in-reach team concluded that there was a woman who was extremely dangerous in her psychosis and had to be placed in the segregation unit for the safety of the other women until alternative arrangements could be made.
■ A crack cocaine addict who displayed disturbing and paranoid behaviour (but who had not been diagnosed with any illness) was released. She refused all offers of help to be put in touch with community workers."

Perhaps the most arresting fact in the Corston report was this: women formed 6 per cent of the prison population, but made up half the cases of self-harm in custody. Corston came to a simple, stark conclusion: a system that had been designed for men was increasingly being used for women (the number incarcerated has doubled since 1995), with painful results. She concluded against imprisoning women offenders who posed no risk to the public, called for the closure of women's prisons over a 10 year time period and their replacement with some small custodial units for serious and dangerous offenders.

The analysis and recommendations received broad cross-party support, but progress towards implementing it was minimal and piecemeal. As Juliet Lyon of the Prison Reform Trust pointed out in 2008: “There was no proper delivery plan and no budget, although the Lord Chancellor had advised the Justice Committee in April that he had the money to implement Corston.”

Four years later, only modest improvements have been made, in terms of incarceration and probation (here is a good summary of recent progress). In the meantime, the likes of Wendy continue to fill the gaps as best they can, and the likes of Amy continue their journey round the revolving door.

A sign pointing to Holloway women's prison in London (Photograph: Getty Images)

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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Chuka Umunna calls for "solidarity" among Labour MPs, whoever is voted leader

The full text of shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna's speech to Policy Network on election-winning ideas for Labour's future, and the weaknesses of the New Labour project.

There has never been an easy time to be a social democrat (or “democratic socialist” as we sometimes call ourselves in Britain). Whereas the right can demonise the poor and extol the virtues of the market, and the hard left can demonise the market and extol the role of the state, our position of constraining the domination of markets and reforming the state is, by definition, more complex.

It is nonetheless the case that social democracy has a historic responsibility, in every generation, to renew democracy and preserve a civic culture. This is achieved not through soundbites and slogans, but through the hard-headed development of a progressive politics that reconciles liberty and democracy, new comers and locals to our communities, business and workers, in a common life that preserves security, prosperity and peace.  This historic mission is all the more urgent now and my determination that we succeed has grown not weakened since our election defeat last May.

But, in order to be heard, it is necessary to make balanced and reasonable argument that both animates and inspires our movement, and which is popular and plausible with the people.  The first is pre-requisite to the second; and there is no choice to be made between your party’s fundamental principles and electability. They are mutually dependent - you cannot do one without the other.

We are in the midst of choosing a new leader and it is clear to anyone who has watched the UK Labour Party leadership election this summer that amongst a significant number there is a profound rage against Third Way politics – as pursued by the likes of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Gerhard Schröder and others - as a rejection of our fundamental values.

In the UK there is a view that New Labour accepted an uncritical accommodation with global capital that widened inequality, weakened organised labour and we were too close to the US Republicans and too far from the European left.

I do not believe this is fair, not least because we rescued many of our public services from the scrap heap when we came to office in 1997 and there were very significant achievements  we should celebrate.  New Labour renewed our National Health Service in a fundamental way; we built new schools and improved existing ones; we set up new children’s centres all over the country; we brought in a National Minimum Wage; we worked with others to bring peace to Northern Ireland; we introduced civil partnerships.  Just some of our achievements.

However, though we may take issue with the critique, I do not think we can simply dismiss out of hand those who hold critical views of New Labour. Like any government, the New Labour administration made mistakes - it could and should have achieved more, and done more to challenge the Right’s assumptions about the world. In the end, it is not unreasonable to be ambitious for what your party in government can achieve in building greater equality, liberty, democracy and sustainability. It is far better we acknowledge, not reject, this ambition for a better world, as we seek to forge a new politics of the common good fit for the future.

Realising our values in office has been disrupted by globalisation and the surge of technological forces that are displacing and reshaping industry after industry.

Some argue that globalisation as an ideological construct of the right. But we must recognise that we live in an increasingly integrated world in which markets have led to an unprecedented participation of excluded people in prosperity, a rise in living standards for hundreds of millions  of people and a literacy unprecedented in human history – this is particularly so in emerging economies like my father’s native Nigeria. And the internet has led to a level of accountability that has disturbed elites.

Yet, this has been combined with a concentration of ownership that needs to be challenged, of a subordination of politics that requires creative rather than reactive thinking, and these global forces have exacerbated inequalities as well as helped reduce poverty.

So it is important that we understand the sheer scale and impact of new technologies. At the moment we are engaged in a debate about Uber and its threat to one of the last vestiges of vocational labour markets left in London, those of the black taxi cabs and their attainment of 'The Knowledge'. But the reality is that within the next decade there will be the emergence of driverless cars so we have to intensify our exploration of how to support people in a knowledge economy and the realities of lifelong learning, as well as lifelong teaching. As people live longer we will have to think about how to engage them constructively in work and teaching in new ways.

Once again, I'm addressing all of this, Social Democracy requires a balanced view that domesticates the destructive energy of capital while recognising its creative energy, that recognises the need for new skills rather than simply the protection of old ones. A Social Democracy that recognises that internationalism requires co-operation between states and not a zero sum game that protectionism would encourage.

Above all, Social Democratic politics must recognise the importance of place, of the resources to be found in the local through which the pressures of globalisation can be mediated and shaped. Our job is to shape the future and neither to accept it as a passive fate nor to indulge the fantasy that we can dominate it but to work with the grain of change in order to renew our tradition, recognising the creativity of the workforce, the benefits of democracy and the importance of building a common life.  Sources of value are to be found in local traditions and institutions.

This also requires a recognition that though demonstration and protest are important,; but relationships and conversations are a far more effective way of building a movement for political change.

One of the huge weaknesses of New Labour was in its reliance on mobilisation from the centre rather than organising. It therefore allowed itself to be characterised as an elite project with wide popular support but it did not build a base for its support within the party across the country, and it did not develop leaders from the communities it represented. It was strong on policy but weak on strengthening democratic politics, particularly Labour politics.

Over half a million people are now members, supporters or affiliated supporters of our party, with hundreds of thousands joining in the last few weeks. Some have joined in order to thwart the pursuit of Labour values but many more have joined to further the pursuit of those values, including lots of young people. At a time when so many are walking away from centre left parties across the Western world and many young people do not vote let alone join a party, this is surely something to celebrate.

So it is vital that we now embrace our new joiners and harness the energy they can bring to renewing Labour’s connection with the people. First, we must help as many them as possible to become doorstep activists for our politics. Second, I have long argued UK Labour should campaign and organise not only to win elections but to affect tangible change through local community campaigns. We brought Arnie Graf, the Chicago community organiser who mentored President Obama in his early years, over from the U.S. to help teach us how to community organise more effectively. We should bring Arnie back over to finish the job and help empower our new joiners to be the change they want to see in every community – we need to build on the links they have with local groups and organisations.

I mentioned at the beginning that in every generation Social Democracy is besieged from left and right but the achievements of each generation are defined by the strength of a complex political tradition that strengthens solidarity through protecting democracy and liberty, a role for the state and the market and seeks to shape the future through an inclusive politics. Solidarity is key which is why we must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office.

Yes, these are troubled times for social democrats. All over Europe there is a sense among our traditional voters that we are remote and do not share their concerns or represent their interests or values.  There is surge of support for populist right wing parties from Denmark to France, of more left wing parties in Greece and Spain and in Britain too. There is renewal of imperial politics in Russia, the murderous and abhorrent regime of ISIL in the Middle East, volatility in the Chinese economy and in Europe a flow of immigration that causes fear and anxiety.

But, the task of Social Democracy in our time is to fashion a politics of hope that can bring together divided populations around justice, peace and prosperity so that we can govern ourselves democratically. We have seen worse than this and weathered the storm. I am looking forward, with great optimism to be being part of a generation that renews our relevance and popularity in the years to come.

Chuka Umunna is the shadow business secretary and the Labour MP for Streatham.