Women’s prisons are improving

It is notable that women's prisons, although facing all the problems of having to operate within a male focused system, have largely succeeded in improving the service they provide when conditions in men's prisons have deteriorated so far, so quickly.

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This is the third in a short series of posts exploring the final annual report of Prison Chief Inspector Nick Hardwick published on 14 July 2015. This post looks at Hardwick’s findings from the inspections of women’s prisons.

Women’s prisons improving while men’s deteriorate

Having read prison inspectors’ verdict on male prisons – unsafe, overcrowded, beset with drugs, with poor resettlement services – it is heartening to read that last year’s inspections found that:

[alert-success]”women’s prisons were safe, respectful and offered reasonable resettlement work”[/alert-success]

The women’s prisons section of the report is based on seven full inspections (of five locals, one training prison and one open prison).  Continuing the trend from the previous year, inspectors found that women’s prisons were at least reasonably good in safety, respect and resettlement, and many were good. The picture was more mixed for purposeful activity where two prisons were not performing sufficiently well. Overall, outcomes in women’s prisons continued to improve and be consistently stronger than in male prisons.

Interestingly, while many male prisons had failed to make progress on inspectors’ recommendations, women’s prisons were continuing to move forward.


Inspecting women’s prisons

The approach for inspecting women’s prisons changed in June 2014 when the Prison Inspectorate published Expectations: criteria for assessing the treatment of conditions for women in prison. These criteria were developed in response to the fact that women’s distinct needs are often ill-met in a system primary designed for the 95% of the prison population who are men; they also incorporate the 2010 United Nations rules for the treatment of women prisoners (the “Bangkok Rules”).

Given increased expectations on women’s prisons at a time when there have been substantial cuts in funding, it is impressive that outcomes generally remained very positive. The graphic below provides a summary of the main outcomes of the prisons inspected last year:

women prison outcomes

The needs of women prisoners

Typically the needs of women prisoners are more complex than those of men. In the 2014/15 inspectors’ survey 74% of women said they had a problem on arrival at prison (compared with 67% of men); 77% were currently on medication (compared with 49% of men), 58% (vs 35%) said they had emotional well-being or mental health issues. Women were more likely to have a drug (41% vs 28% ) or alcohol (30% vs 19%) problem on arrival into prison. Importantly, for 53% women, it was their first time in prison (compared with 36% of men).

The inspectors commended mental health services available for women prisoners at Styal, Send and Eastwood Park but expressed concerns about treatment at Foston Hall and Peterborough. In most prisons, self-harm reduced overall (compared to a significant increase in male prisons) although overall rates still remained high.

Inspectors did not find the same level of problems with New Psychoactive Substances in women’s prisons as at men’s prisons; with misuse of medication the main issue.


Prison or hospital

The inspection of Low Newton where more than three quarters of the population were receiving treatment or therapy for their mental health led inspectors to consider whether a small number of women, who have been remanded at prison “for their own protection”, should have been in hospital since prison did not appear to be an appropriate place of safety for them.


Activity and resettlement

Inspectors found that the quality of purposeful activity varied considerably between different women’s prisons. While women were out of their cells and occupied in good quality employment, training and education at Styal, Send and Askham Grange, the situation was nowhere near as good at Foston Hall and Peterborough.

Resettlement work was normally assessed as good or reasonably good with the main challenge being that very many women are held a long way from their families. Eastwood Park, for example, had a huge catchment area – from Cornwall to Wolverhampton, across Wales and along the south coast – this meant that the prison’s accommodation services work with between 70 to 80 different local authorities.


Victimisation, abuse and trafficking

Inspectors found little systematic identification of women in prison who had been victimised, abused or trafficked, and too much variability in the support offered. Awareness of issues relating to trafficking was generally low. Peterborough prison was commended for its work in this area, supported to a great extent by the fact that it had developed such good links with an excellent range of statutory and voluntary sector services from across the country.



It is notable that women’s prisons, although facing all the problems of having to operate within a male focused system, have largely succeeded in improving the service they provide when conditions in men’s prisons have deteriorated so far, so quickly.


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One Response

  1. The report made no mention of Holloway which is the most dysfunctional of all the female prisons. That would have received failing grades in every single area of the prison. I also find the inspectorates measurements in some areas as very odd given that if you actually spoke to inmates at some of these prisons they would provide a very different picture of what the place is like on a day to day basis. Inspectors witness all staff on their best behaviour rather than how they behave when not being observed so a squewed version of reality is presented to the inspectors.

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