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A new approach to women’s prisons?
Women at HMP Downview
What does the prisons white paper say about the government's new approach to women's prisons?

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Designed for women

I promised when I summarised the government’s Prison Strategy White Paper last week to dig further into the detail in a series of posts. This is the first of that series and focuses on what the government says will be a new approach to women’s prisons. The strategy summarises the MoJ’s ambition in this area:

“to deliver a women’s estate that is safe, decent, fair and designed for women; one that supports rehabilitation and positive outcomes by being trauma-responsive; and empowers and enables women in custody to address the causes of their reoffending.”

A new approach

The government says it wants to reduce the number of women in prison but also to make the women’s prison estate more fit for purpose. It says that it is designing new accommodation that is safe, secure, trauma-informed and women-specific. The aims is to expand open provision to women’s sites that do not currently have it, and expand capacity at those that do, in order to enable more women to be held at the correct security level and enhance access to resettlement opportunities and Release on Temporary Licence.

Accommodating different cohorts of women

This phrase appears to be an acknowledgement of racial disparity and the lack of cultural awareness among staff. The strategy says that over the next two years, HMPPS will:

“develop and implement mandatory training for staff in women’s prisons to address the diverse needs of all women in their care. This training will equip staff with an increased knowledge of the effects of culture, faith and sustaining family relationships, increasing their confidence and skills in supporting all offenders.”

Improving safety and reducing self-harm

The white paper recognises the disproportionately high rates of self-harm amongst women in prison which it acknowledges are linked to experiences of trauma and abuse and related mental health and drug and alcohol needs. Again, it sees the answer in staff recruitment and trauma-informed training.

Supporting pregnant women in custody

There is a dedicated section in the strategy on this topic, no doubt as a response to the tragic deaths over recent years. In addition to new policy guidance, HMPPS has introduced an enhanced Pregnancy and Mother and Baby Liaison Officer role in every women’s prison. Nine Liaison Officers have been recruited and there is a commitment to fill the remaining posts by the end of January 2022. The National Women’s Prisons Health and Social Care Review Group will report its recommendations in Spring next year.

© Andy Aitchison

The 10 year vision

The white paper sets out the long-term ambitions for women in prison:

  • To build additional space within the current women’s estate for interviews, individual meetings with staff, therapeutic work, and purposeful activity.
  • The longer-term ambition for the estate is to introduce smaller, trauma-responsive custodial environments for women on short sentences.
  • Introduce family units in all women’s prisons: self-contained units where, (subject to “robust risk assessments”), women can have extended visits or overnight stays with their children.
  • Expand the use of Mother and Baby Units.
  • Pilot on-site social workers within the women’s estate.
  • Produce a Young Women’s Strategy for those aged under 25.
  • Reduce the number of women held in prison on remand, by improving bail provision.


Of course, most organisations working with women in contact with the criminal justice system would like to see most of the money dedicated in this strategy to building more women’s prisons spent instead on providing more and better equipped community alternatives.



Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the images in this post. You can see Andy’s work here

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