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28 January 2014updated 30 Jan 2014 1:16pm

Choking to death: should we stop sending women to prison?

Even if many politicians are convinced by the ethical and economic case for closing women’s prisons, many feel they need to appear “tough on crime” to a public that demands punishment and retribution.

By Sophie McBain

No place for a girl like you: inmates protest from behind bars at HMP Styal. Photo: Don McPhee/Guardian News and Media. 

Gemma learned a lot from prison. On her first day in HMP Styal, eight years ago, she learned how to take heroin and crack cocaine. “I didn’t tell the girls I hadn’t done them before – I just wanted to fit in,” she tells me when we meet at Brighton Oasis Project, a charity for women with drug or alcohol addictions. By her second jail sentence, at HMP Bronzefield in Surrey in early 2013, she’d been taught how to “load up” with drug-filled condoms before her court date and how to avoid being “decrotched”: “when someone watches the cell door and they use a spoon to take the drugs out from inside of you”.

Gemma says she didn’t know before prison that if you slit your wrists the blood can spurt so high it hits the ceiling – but self-harm was so common at Bronzefield that a deep-clean team was often called in to mop up the bloodstains, and the staff carried knives to cut ligatures from inmates’ necks. One woman repeatedly tried to hang herself but the guards “didn’t do anything to stop it. They just put her on meds and kept on cutting her down.”

According to a study published in the Lancet in December, a quarter of female prisoners self-harm, and 102 female inmates self-harmed more than 100 times in one year. Self-harm is more common among women in prison than men: women make up 5 per cent of the UK’s prison population but account for 28 per cent of self-harm cases.

I first meet Gemma at Boppers, a mother-and-baby group in Brighton run by Oasis, for women whose children have been placed on a child protection plan by social services. We all sit on nursery-size chairs making peg-angels. Gemma’s six-month-old son, David, is gurgling happily in her lap and when she whispers “heroin and crack” she gently places her hands over his ears. David was born while Gemma was in prison; she gave birth in front of two female prison guards she’d never met before. She says she was fortunate that two women happened to be on shift that day. David and Gemma spent a month in hospital together following complications she believes could have been caused by prison nurses reducing her methadone dose during pregnancy. Two officers – men and women – stood guard beside her hospital bed 24 hours a day, so she felt unable to breastfeed.

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“Prison doesn’t help you, it does the opposite. I came out angrier,” she says. “They should give you a chance to turn your life around, but instead they just send you to prison, lock the door and you lose a bit of time. The same people are coming in and out of prison.”

The statistics support her: 51 per cent of women leaving prison will be reconvicted within a year, and among those on short sentences of less than 12 months, this rises to 62 per cent. If one of the aims of prison is to reduce offending by women, it isn’t working. In fact, given that roughly a quarter of female inmates have no previous conviction, sending a woman to prison increases the probability of her offending again.

Gemma has finally been able to address the reason she has served two jail sentences, most recently for assaulting a security guard: her drug and alcohol addiction, her childhood abuse, the trauma of watching her first husband, who had joined a gang, being shot dead. “I’ve turned my life around,” she tells me. A month after we met, she regained custody of David.

Campaigners such as Rachel Halford, the director of the charity Women in Prison, want the 12 (soon to be ten) women’s prisons in England to close. “We want the complete abolition of the women’s prison estate as it exists today,” she tells me when we meet at her London office. “The prison system was designed for men, but women’s routes into criminality are very different, and their needs are very different.”

Most women in prison pose no threat to society: 81 per cent are jailed for a non-violent offence. They make up such a small proportion of the UK prison population – although at present there are as many as 4,000 women behind bars – that their specific needs are easily overlooked in national policymaking. At the same time, the impact of a prison sentence is often greater on women than on men; because women are still more likely to be single parents and the prime homemaker, they run a greater risk of ending up homeless after prison and losing access to their children. Home Office figures show that each year, about 17,000 children become separated from their mother because she is in prison.

“The majority of women have been let down by society long before they reach the attention of the criminal justice system,” Halford says. A significant proportion of male prisoners have experienced childhood abuse, been through the care system or suffered mental illness, but among women these trends are even more pronounced. According to the Prison Reform Trust, female prisoners are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators: 46 per cent have suffered domestic violence and 53 per cent have experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse during childhood. This could be directly connected to their offending: half of the women say they have committed an offence to support someone else’s drug use.

Rates of mental illness are also much higher among the female prison population: 30 per cent will have had a psychiatric admission before coming to prison, and 37 per cent have previously attempted suicide. The self-harm that Gemma witnessed in prison illustrates how vulnerable and distressed many women prisoners are, and how poorly equipped the prison system is to deal with their needs.

Halford would like to see all women who have committed non-violent offences being offered a community sentence, and for the minority whose violence makes them pose a threat to society to be kept in smaller custodial units. This might sound like a revolutionary rethink of the penal system, but seven years ago the UK government signed up to a very similar set of recommendations.

Slopping standard: inside Styal Prison, Cheshire, where in 12 months between 2002 and 2003 six women in custody killed themselves

In 12 months between 2002 and 2003, six women died in HMP Styal. The youngest was Sarah Campbell – an 18-year-old with a history of depression and heroin addiction – who took a fatal overdose in January 2003. In response, the government commissioned Baroness (Jean) Corston to review the women’s prison services. Her 2007 report called for women’s prisons to be replaced, within ten years, by “geographically dispersed, small, multi-functional custodial units” and for most of the women to be given community sentences. She drew attention to three specialist women’s community centres, based in Glasgow, Worcester and Halifax, that could offer an alternative to custody for female offenders. These provide a one-stop shop for women, including advice on housing, employment and social services, drug rehabilitation and mental health care.

Corston made her case persuasively: the government accepted 41 of her report’s 43 recommendations. But a 2012 paper by the Commons justice committee measuring progress following the Corston report concluded that the coalition government has failed to focus on women offenders, and that the pace of change has been too slow.

“There isn’t really the political will to see all the report’s recommendations through. Politicians could support the fuzzy notion that there shouldn’t be so many women in prison, but when it comes to actually closing down women’s prisons and replacing them with perhaps just one or two small custodial units for those few women who pose a threat to society, the reform efforts have faltered,” Andrew Neilson, head of campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform, told me.

Whether or not a woman is offered a community instead of a custodial sentence can depend merely on where she lives. The UK now has about 50 community centres similar to those recommended by Baroness Corston, but the patchy provision leaves women facing a postcode lottery. Val Castell, an expert on female offenders at the Magistrates’ Association, says she knows some women are missing out. “I am aware that up and down the country there are a number of situations where it would have been infinitely preferable for a woman to be given a non-custodial sentence but there weren’t any of those options available locally,” she told me.

It hasn’t helped that funding streams for women’s centres are complex and constantly changing. Under the much-trumpeted Transforming Rehabilitation plan, unveiled by the coalition last year (more of which later), funding for women’s centres will be completely overhauled. All current contracts will be put out to public tender, with small community centres compelled to compete with private providers for new, payment-by-results contracts (similar to those introduced in 2011 under the Welfare to Work scheme). Neilson fears that women’s centres could struggle to demonstrate their cost-effectiveness when pitted against large, specialist companies, possibly including giants such as G4S and Serco. “Women’s community centres are doing some great work,” he says, “but most are seeing such a small number of women that it would be difficult for them to compete for a payment-by-results contract where results depend on a volume of cases.”

Ironically, as the economist Vicky Pryce argues in her 2013 book Prisonomics, increasing the provision of community sentences for women would save the Ministry of Justice money. Pryce’s book draws on her experience of a two-month stint in prison (first at Holloway in north London and later at East Sutton Park open prison near Maidstone) for accepting penalty points in place of her ex-husband, the former Liberal Democrat cabinet minister Chris Huhne. She writes that in 2009/2010 keeping a woman in prison for one year cost £56,415 while an equivalent community sentence cost just £1,360. If a woman’s children are placed in care, the cost of a prison sentence can shoot up, from an extra £40,000 to place a child with no specialist needs in care for 14 months, to £525,000 over 20 months for placing a child with complex needs in care. She estimates that moving just 1,000 women out of prison and on to a community sentence would save the Ministry of Justice at least £12m a year – and that’s without factoring in the money saved from not putting their children into care.

When I speak to Pryce on the phone, she tells me she thinks her economic case for prison reform is becoming “unavoidable”. “The public purse can’t afford it any more. This isn’t just about women, it applies to men, too. We are putting many more people in prison per capita than many other countries, and the cost of this is immense – and not just in terms of putting them in prison in the first instance. The cost is immense in terms of what it means for society as a whole, for their children, and for their ability to get jobs and be re-employed.”

A costly case: Pryce says prisons don’t add up. Photo: Getty. 

Back at Oasis, I meet two women who have recently been given the option of avoiding prison by being placed on a Drug Rehabilitation Requirement. The DRR is an intensive, six-month treatment order sometimes offered as an alternative to a custodial sentence. It involves weekly drug testing as well as regular counselling sessions and group work. “Not many women get a DRR, and what’s different is that we have gender-specific services,” says Jo-Anne Welsh, the director of Brighton Oasis Project. Women placed on mixed rehabilitation programmes can find it harder to complete their court-sanctioned requirements: often there is no childcare offered by the DRR centre; they might feel intimidated by some of the men in their group and struggle to open up, or discuss subjects such as sex work and domestic abuse.

“You could say it’s harder to be in a group telling people why you’re addicted to drugs than to be in HMP Bronzefield taking Valium and knowing you’ll be out in six weeks,” Welsh adds. But at a DRR group support session I meet Faye, who tells me this is her first drug offence and that she’s grateful to be avoiding prison. She has just left her abusive partner and is now trying to kick her ketamine habit. Throughout our conversation she shakes, and each time she’s asked a question she jumps. I find myself fighting the urge to hug her and wondering how someone so anxious would cope in prison.

It’s her group partner Tash’s second time on a DRR; she remained clean for a year before relapsing. She tells me she finds talking at the support sessions hard – “usually I take drugs to hide these feelings” – but when she slumps forward to tell me how she ended up here, the words seem to tumble out uncontrollably.

She pulls up the sleeve of her baggy black hoodie to expose a pale, thin arm covered in scratches and faded brown bruises from years of shooting heroin. She’s worked as a prostitute, she says, and after a string of violent relationships has lost several teeth and had a metal plate put in her head. She’s lost all five of her children. Four were placed in care and her newborn baby died of brain damage when he was a few days old – possibly because she “didn’t look after [herself] when I was pregnant” – a loss that triggered her most recent spiral into drug addiction. Tash has been addicted to drugs for 15 years and is 30, but she looks younger. Her long brown hair almost reaches her waist, and is parted perfectly at the centre. Sometimes her voice cracks with tears and at other times it is cold with rage. In prison, they called her “Psycho Tash”, she says. She was pleased with the nickname because it made her less likely to be attacked by other inmates.

“I’ve done eight jail sentences, and they are no good,” she says. At HMP Bronzefield, she says, she saw girls being raped by other inmates, scalded with hot water and sugar and knifed in the face. Other inmates have slept with male prison officers “just to get what they need”. “I’ve heard some of the screws refer to one of the wings as Beirut, and I’ve been on those wings and they are not nice,” she tells me.

One of Tash’s friends, Sarah Higgins, died in prison in May 2010 from a suspected drug overdose. An inquest published last October concluded that there had been grave failings among prison staff, who prescribed methadone for her despite suspecting that she had hidden drugs. Tash says her fellow inmates tried to get the guards’ attention when Sarah became unwell, but that they were ignored.

Tash may not complete her DRR; she knows she is “this close to going to prison” because of the difficulty she has with staying clean and out of trouble. She doubts that another prison sentence will help her: “The prison system is not good for females at all. It made me worse.”

One of the problems with offering non-custodial sentences is that it isn’t obvious what should happen when women can’t or don’t comply. Should they be locked up for non-violent crimes as a last resort when community alternatives don’t work?

Most campaigners would think not. Jo-Anne Welsh at Oasis tells me she is concerned that women could end up going to prison for breaching their community sentence, even if the original offence would not have warranted a custodial sentence. More research needs to be done to find out why a woman might struggle to engage with her community sentence. Sometimes there may be practical reasons why a woman doesn’t turn up to a compulsory community orders, such as problems arranging childcare. At other times there could be other, more complex barriers: a controlling partner, or unaddressed mental health problems. At root, those supporting the abolition of women’s prisons also support a complete rethink of how we approach women’s offending, recasting female offenders primarily as victims rather than perpetrators and placing greater emphasis on tackling the causes of criminal behaviour than on punishing crime.

However, things seem to be getting worse for female offenders. In October the Ministry of Justice announced that it plans to close the UK’s only two open prisons for women. The MoJ said this change would “improve family ties and employment links”, arguing that because women will no longer be moved to an open prison before their release they will be able to stay closer to home throughout their incarceration. Soon there will no longer be any dedicated open prisons for women. The government says that all prisons are due to become “resettlement prisons”, but it is not clear how it will be possible for women to have all the benefits of an open prison while remaining in a closed prison. For instance, East Sutton Park, where Pryce served part of her sentence, is in a Grade II-listed Elizabethan building with a working farm attached to it.

At the same time, the mother-and-baby unit at Holloway in London has been closed, so now some women with babies will be moved even further from home, to HMP Bronzefield, over 20 miles away. Frances Crook, the chief executive of the Howard League, accused the MoJ of “deceit” because of the way it presented the closing of these open prisons as good for women. The ministry turned down my request for an interview, and did not permit me to visit a women’s prison.

Meanwhile, under the Transforming Rehabilitation plan launched last year, all prisoners on short sentences will receive statutory rehabilitation for up to 12 months. These rehab services are being contracted out by the government, which will pay providers according to their success at reducing reoffending. So far, 30 private companies and consortiums of charities have been shortlisted for 20 contracts. Women’s organisations had suggested that women’s rehabilitation services could be contracted out separately but the government decided to commission them by geographical area in order to cut costs. The concern is that cost-aware private contractors will be reluctant to fund services specifically tailored to the small population of female offenders. Alan Beith, the chair of the Commons justice select committee, said that “the government’s Transforming Rehabilitation reforms have clearly been designed with male offenders in mind”; women are an “afterthought”.

Even if many politicians are convinced by the ethical and economic case for closing women’s prisons, many feel they need to appear “tough on crime” to a public that demands punishment and retribution. Perhaps at root we are suffering from a communication problem. “Tough on crime” may be an appealing idea; less so if it is used to support the cruel and ultimately counterproductive practice of separating mothers from their children and placing disturbed, vulnerable and mentally ill women on Britain’s violent, drug-filled prison wards.

At HMP Bronzefield there’s a woman who often tries to hang herself. Is it right just to keep cutting her down?

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