Women in prison: special report

When prisons ombudsman Stephen Shaw described imprisonment of women as “disproportionate, ineffective and unkind,” last year, it rang true with prisoners, relatives and penal reformers across the board.

Shaw made the comments after the publication of his report on the death of Julie Walsh at Styal prison, which took into account the deaths of five other women at the establishment between August 2002 and August 2003.

This week a damning inspection report on the prison came out showing it was still failing to meet many of the recommendations made by a previous inspection in 2004.

Vulnerable population
Lyon bio imageDirector of the Prison Reform Trust, Juliet Lyon (pictured left) says Styal is in no way equipped to manage such a vulnerable population nor should it be asked to do so.

One of the new report’s most striking findings was that forty two per cent of women, compared to 29 per cent in 2004, said they felt unsafe at Styal and more prisoners also reported having been assaulted by others.

Frances Crook (pictured right), director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, says the finding is “extremely worrying” and that if a woman felt unsafe then it followed they were more likely to self-harm or take their own life at the prison.

The report found self-harming at Styal to be “prolific” and a lack of therapeutic interventions taking place to prevent this.Frances Crook

In order to do therapeutic work they have to get higher skilled staff in, it’s very expensive and none of the prisons are equipped to deal with this. It has to be provided by the health service or in a hospital,” says Crook.

Mental health problems
Around one third of Styal’s inmates have already made a serious attempt to take their life before reaching the prison and many have mental health problems, causing campaigners to question whether they should be in prison at all.

The Prison Reform Trust’s Lyon, says that in the last spending review the government made a commitment to create new ways of tackling female offending but these haven’t yet materialised.

“What has happened to proposals for mental health court diversion schemes, community drug treatment, women-only bail hostels and the government’s ‘radical new approaches’ to women who offend?” she asks.

In 2004 inspectors recommended that the use of special cells – unfurnished with no integral sanitation – should be exceptional, authorised only for one hour initially and subject to rigorous monitoring by managers. But the new report warns there had been a marked increase in the facility’s use at Styal. Inspectors found that while the cells had been used 44 times in 12 months in 2003, this had risen to 113 in the first 10 months of 2005 and managers were not reviewing their usage.

The report goes on to uncover that self-harming often resulted in women being confined within a special cell at Styal, a measure which many campaigners find to be totally inappropriate.

“We appreciate that some of the measures that undertaken are trying to prevent women self-harming but putting women who self-harm in special cells is a really inhumane response and I question the whole ability of the prison service to deal with women that shouldn’t be in prison in the first place,” says Deborah Coles, co-director of Inquest.

Five out of the six deaths at Styal took place on the prison’s Waite wing but the inspectors still found the support and regime on the wing to be “wholly unsatisfactory”, with 100 of its 165 prisoners locked in their cells during the day and interaction with staff remaining limited.

“It’s totally unacceptable that some women are locked up for long periods of time. All of these things contribute to mental deterioration and suicide,” says Coles.

Despite Styal’s obvious problems the Home Office is proposing to expand the prison, something most campaigners are totally against. Coles argues that the resources should be spent on providing alternatives to custody for women rather than enlarging the prison.

“It’s quite clear that things have improved since the previous inspection but to even begin to suggest that Styal should become the biggest women’s prison in Europe is absolutely scandalous when there are such fundamental concerns,” she concludes.

Howard League for Penal Reform
Prison Reform Trust


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