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Women in prison don’t get the healthcare they need
Nuffield Trust research finds women prison face a series of challenges and risks because of barriers to accessing health and care services.

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Inequality on the inside

New (19 July 2022) research by the Nuffield Trust uses hospital data to understand the key health care issues for women in prison. The study, by Miranda Davies, Rachel Hutchings & Eilís Keeble, underlines the challenges and risks women in prison face because of barriers to accessing health and care services. 

Although all people in prison have the right to the same quality of health care as people in the general population, readers won’t be surprised to find that this was not the case.

The research was conducted by analysing Hospital Episode Statistics data from 2019/20 and found that in some areas, particularly healthcare during pregnancy, women experience poor health outcomes.

Key findings

Pregnant women in prison are more likely to experience preterm labour than women in the general population.

Babies born premature have a higher mortality rate than those born full term and an increased risk of disability. Of 127 women in prison who gave birth between 2016 and 2019, some 11% went into preterm labour and delivery. This is a significantly higher proportion than in the general population, where 6.5% of births were premature across a comparable time period for women of the same age. While there have been strides to at least acknowledge and plan for the unique health care needs of pregnant and postnatal women in prison, this highlights that although the number of pregnant women in prison may be small, the risks to these women and their babies are very real.

There are no official data on the number of women in prison who have children. Our work can fill in some of this gap. In 2019/20, 212 women had given birth in hospital within the four years before going to prison, 109 within the two years before.

While it is important to support the needs of pregnant women in prison, a much larger group of women have children before they spend time in prison and the needs of these women (and their children) need to be better understood. This information is essential to ensure that women who have had children before entering prison are able to access the right care and support. For example, the consequences of maternal separation for physical and mental wellbeing can be significant. It is vital that wider work on supporting families (for example through visits) is aligned with health care, recognising this impact.

Access to hospital services is poor and this is a long-term issue.

Access to services is an important part of good-quality care but women in prison continue to face challenges accessing hospital care. This is a long-standing issue that is showing little sign of improvement. In 2019/20 just under 45% of all outpatient appointments for women in prison were missed (n = 3,929). This is likely to be a symptom of wider problems the prison estate faces, in particular around staff availability. Prisons do not always communicate the reasons for delays in hospital care well to women and uncertainty around when appointments will happen, and fewer options for self-care in the interim, are a significant source of stress.

Hospital data highlight the complex needs of women in prison, particularly around trauma and substance misuse.

Meeting the health care needs of women in prison requires targeted support and recognition of the impact of previous trauma. The research shows that the experiences women have had before prison, such as domestic abuse, directly impact on their health. The study found hospital admissions as a result of brain injury and violence, which may be linked to experiences of domestic abuse before prison. In 2019/20 there were 28 hospital admissions by 25 women where diaphragmatic hernia (which in adults is often a result of blunt force trauma) was recorded as a diagnosis.

Substance misuse plays a part in a significant proportion of hospital admissions by women in prison.

In 2019/20 just under 30% (356) of inpatient admissions by women in prison had a diagnosis of substance use recorded. In the male prison estate there was a much higher number of admissions where substance use was recorded (2,680), but as a proportion of all admissions by male prisoners, substance use had less of an impact, making up under 20% (19.8%) of admissions. Stakeholders raised concerns that the management of substance misuse may lead to other health care needs being overlooked.

Women’s sexual and reproductive health care needs are not talked about openly and symptoms of normal changes to the body, such as the menopause, as well as conditions such as endometriosis, are not well understood or managed.

The lack of priority in terms of women’s health can impact on all women, but for women in prison, managing their reproductive health and normal changes to their body linked to the menopause can be particularly hard. Women in prison cannot always access the advice and support they need, and practical things, such as changing bedsheets to manage night sweats, or exercising as a lifestyle measure, may not be possible.


The authors make four key recommendations to improve healthcare for women in prison:

  1. Ensure women have access to good-quality, understandable and targeted health care information.
  2. Commit to better data collection to inform planning and address inequality.
  3. Better understand and address the needs of those with children as an urgent priority ahead of the new prison places.
  4. Acknowledge and address the range of reasons why hospital appointments might be missed.


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

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