Prison sentences worsen women’s health, disrupt their recovery, and intensify victimisation, inquiry finds

Apr 25, 2022

Imprisonment has a damaging impact on women’s health, wellbeing, and recovery, a report from the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Women in the Penal System has found.

The inquiry uncovered concerning evidence of poor living conditions, restrictions and practices detrimental to wellbeing, and rising rates of self-injury in women’s prisons. Some of these conditions were the product of COVID-19 response measures in custody, whilst others were unrelated – including evidence of an ant infestation in Downview prison.

Jackie Doyle-Price MP, Co-Chair of the APPG, criticised the overuse of custodial sentences of women: “The focus should be on stopping unnecessary use of custody – not prison expansion, which would only pull more women into a system that fails to provide the care and support they require.”

Together Women condemns current government plans to build 500 more prison places for women in the UK. Rokaiya Khan, CEO, states: “This is another damning report that evidences the plans to build new prison places must end.”

The inquiry made several critical findings concerning the conditions women in prison face:


Living conditions in women’s prisons are poor

Evidence provided by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) described poor living conditions in women’s prisons. Clear issues with accommodation were highlighted – in one prison, 20 women were found to be sharing two toilets, whilst in Eastwood Park prison, living accommodation units were found to be ‘completely inappropriate.’ In Downview prison, previous inspections found damp, mould, and evidence of an ant infestation – clear indications of poor living conditions, providing a hazard to women in custody.


Pandemic-related restrictions in prisons worsened women’s experiences in custody

Jackie Doyle-Price MP, Co-Chair of the APPG on Women in the Penal System, described how “Prison environments that failed to promote good health before the pandemic have deteriorated further in the months and years since.” This deterioration included women being locked in their cells for up to 23 hours each day, meaning wellbeing practices – such as going for a walk or taking exercise – became impossible. Before the pandemic, rates of self-harm in women’s prisons were 5 times that of men – this rate has since risen to 8 times, with some women found to be self-harming daily.


Prison is disruptive to women’s health and recovery

Alarmingly, the report finds that women were not always listened to or believed when raising health concerns, or when asking for help. Further to this, health treatments and recovery plans are also found to be disrupted by custodial sentences: some women missed hospital appointments because there were no staff available to escort them. For women receiving treatment, medication, or following a recovery plan prior to entering prison, sentences were found to disrupt this – including recovery from substance misuse.


Practices in prison can intensify women’s victimisation

The use of strip-searching and restraints is found to cause women to feel powerless and unsafe, and intensify victimisation. The inquiry also highlights the negative impact these practices have on the relationships between women in custody and prison staff; this has the potential to further negatively impact the experiences of women during their sentences.


Most women in prison don’t need to be there

The inquiry highlights that from 2021 show that one in three women in prison was sentenced for less than 12 months – sentences often handed for non-violent offences, but with significant potential to leave a woman without secure accommodation upon leaving prison. In 2020, Ministry of Justice data demonstrated that almost a third of women’s convictions were for not paying their TV license fee, compared to one in ten for men – largely because women were more likely to answer the door to inspectors.

Alarmingly, the report highlights the use of remand for women’s ‘own protection’ – a power that is often used simply because of a lack of appropriate mental health services and support in the community. The APPG has called for the legislation that grants the courts this power.


Most women in prison have experienced abuse in childhood or adulthood

A majority of women in prison are victim-survivors of abuse and violence: more than half of women in prison report experiencing abuse (emotional, sexual, or physical) in childhood; more than half report experiencing domestic abuse or violence during adulthood.

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