A growing evidence base
For many of us, the extraordinary challenges of the past year have brought home how vital it is for our health and well-being that we have fresh air, regular exercise, a good diet and positive relationships with others. MPs and peers had this in mind yesterday (Tuesday 2 March) when they began an inquiry focused on what happens to women who are sent to prison.
The All Party Parliamentary Group on Women in the Penal System, of which we are co-chairs, is responding to growing evidence that prisons can have a damaging effect on the physical and mental health of women. Over the next few months, we will hear from expert witnesses and consider what steps could be taken to protect women from harm and help them to be healthier.
This will be a wide-ranging inquiry, assisted by the Howard League for Penal Reform, looking not only at the healthcare that women receive but also how the wider culture in prisons can affect their health and well-being. We want to find out not only about the barriers that stand between women and the help they need, but also what prisons are doing to promote healthy lifestyles.
We will be asking questions about food and exercise. Do women get enough fresh fruit and vegetables? Are they able to get some time outside, or are they spending hours on end locked inside their cells? What was happening before the pandemic began?
We will be asking about practices, procedures and facilities. Women account for about 5 per cent of the prison population in England and Wales, with more than 7,000 receptions a year. Almost 15 years ago, while conducting a major review of the treatment of women in the criminal justice system, our co-chair Baroness Corston found that imprisonment was harsher for women because prisons and the practices within them had for the most part been designed for men. What has changed since, if anything? If prisons are primarily set up to meet the needs of men, what does this mean for pregnant women or those who have recently given birth?
And we will be asking about mental health. Why is it that, while recorded self-injury has fallen in men’s prisons over the last year, the number of incidents in women’s prisons has risen by 8 per cent? How do prisons support women who arrive in acute distress? How do they meet the specific and diverse needs of those who have been abused physically and emotionally, victims of crime themselves?
Frontline charities such as Women in Prison will give evidence on how they work with women in a trauma-informed and holistic way to address their needs, but also about the challenges that prison environments and the stigma of prison sentences pose to accessing healthcare and building trust with relevant services. They have called on the government to renew its commitments to early release and diverting women to community-based solutions, as the pandemic restrictions have changed and amplified women’s well-being needs.
There is a lot to cover, but the more we learn about the impact that imprisonment can have, the more we can do to help women to live healthier lives, free from crime. If we get this right, it will benefit everyone.
Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the images in this post. You can see Andy’s work here.