Urgent action needed
It is an awful irony that the same week it emerged that the MoJ is postponing its plans to keep low level women offenders out of prison because it, reportedly, can’t afford them, Inquest has published its latest examination into the deaths of women in prison.
The bare facts
The report, “Still dying on the inside”, reveals that ninety-three women have died in women’s prisons in England and Wales since the publication of the Corston report. 2016 was the deadliest year on record for both male and female prisoners with a total of 346 people dying.
Twenty-two women died, 12 of which were self-inflicted, 7 non self-inflicted and three are awaiting classification.
Furthermore, since March 2007, seven transgender women have died in men’s prisons, five of which were self-inflicted and two, non self-inflicted.
The transition from custody to the community can often be very difficult for women who are likely to be facing a series of challenges including housing, health, addictions, poverty, mental ill-health and family relationships.
Between 2010/11 and 2016/17, 116 women died while under probation supervision following release from prison. The apparent cause of death recorded by the Ministry of Justice are as follows:
- 31 self-inflicted
- 8 accidents
- 40 natural causes
- 3 other
- 4 homicides
- 30 unclassified
Of course behind these statistics are individual stories of suffering and loss and the Inquest report provides desperately sad accounts of six women who lost their lives inside. Many of them suffered from mental health problems and were in prison when they should have been in hospital. Inquest highlight that women prisoners who are suicidal are often segregated and isolated and spend long hours in their cells, effectively aggravating their problems and heightening their wish to end it all.
Forty three of the 93 women who have died in prison since 2007 were aged under forty; thirteen of them under 30. A tragic loss of life.
Inquest makes seven key recommendations to try to prevent the future deaths of women in prison:
1: Redirect resources from criminal justice to welfare, health, housing and social care.
Reallocated criminal justice resources should be invested in refuges and rape crisis centres, drug and alcohol support services, gender appropriate community services and small community based therapeutic centres.
2: Divert women away from the criminal justice system.
Diversion from criminal justice towards treatment and support must be the preferred option. Strategies and holistic interventions that address the many complex reasons why women enter the criminal justice system– sexual and physical abuse, poverty, homelessness, addiction, and mental and physical ill health – offer the best option for tackling the issues that underlie the deaths of women in prison.
3: Halt prison building and commit to an immediate reduction in the prison population.
Imprisonment should be abolished as a response to women who have broken the law. For the 100 women or so whose offence is so serious that they may be considered a danger to others, a network of small therapeutic secure units should be created.
4: Review sentencing decisions and policy.
A meaningful review of sentencing decisions and alternatives available to courts should be part of any investigation following a death or serious injury in prison. Such a focus would help ensure responsibility and accountability for deaths beyond just the prison service.
5: An urgent review of the deaths of women following release from prison.
Deaths of women following release from prison are largely ignored, hidden from view and do not receive the same level of scrutiny, concern or investigation currently received by deaths in custody.
6. Ensure access to justice and learning for bereaved families.
To ensure fairness and equality where there is a death, families should be allowed access to justice through non-means tested public funding for representation at inquests as recommended by two Chief Coroners and in two recent reviews by Dame Elish Angiolini and Bishop James Jones.
7. Build a national oversight mechanism for implementing official recommendations.
The lack of statutory enforcement and oversight of safety recommendations is putting lives at risk. There is an overwhelming case for the creation of a national oversight mechanism on deaths in custody. This body would be tasked with monitoring, auditing and reporting on the accumulated learning from post death investigations by the Prison and Probation Ombudsman, inquest outcomes and recommendations from HM Inspectorate of Prisons and Independent Monitoring Boards.