Women’s jails are the most violent they have ever been, with assaults tripling in a decade to hit an all-time high, according to “shameful” new figures laying bare the havoc and despair in Britain’s overcrowded prison system.
With 488 assaults for every 1,000 inmates, the rate of violence in the 3,600-strong women’s prison estate – which saw a total of 1,630 assaults in the year to September – is now far worse than among men, where the rate is 40 per cent lower.
While serious violence has historically been much worse in men’s prisons, the rate in the women’s estate is now almost identical for the first time with 110 serious assaults, 39 of them against prison staff.
In one instance illustrating the link between violence and unmet mental health needs, reported in May by the Independent Monitoring Board, two women with mental health needs housed in the segregation unit at Peterborough were said to be so violent that it took four officers to unlock their cells.
Steve Gillan, the Prison Officers Association chief, told The Independent: “Many of our members are facing life-changing injuries and something needs to change dramatically in how our prisons are run.
“Overcrowding and understaffing with no meaningful activity for prisoners leads to our members being assaulted on a regular basis,” he added. “It is totally unacceptable and we call on HMPPS and government to deal with it robustly so that our members are safe at work.”
Self-harm has also skyrocketed in women’s prisons by 38 per cent to a new peak of 5,988 incidents per 1,000 prisoners – 10 times higher than in the men’s prison estate, despite self-harm and suicide both rising among men too, with 90 men dying by suicide in the past year.
Campbell Robb, chief executive of major prison charity Nacro, said: “These figures paint a damning picture of a broken system which is letting women down at every turn.
“Behind the shocking rises in self-harm and assaults are women who are desperate and deeply traumatised. The vast majority of women are sent to prison for non-violent offences yet a prison sentence sets off a grenade in their lives. They lose their job, home, children. Then at this time of crisis they are thrown into the inherently traumatising environment of prison.”
Many women end up in prison after “falling through the cracks” of other social services, said Pia Sinha, chief executive of the Prison Reform Trust, with prisons expected to deal with the consequences of a “woeful lack of adequate mental health provision in the community”.
They are often victims of crime and abuse, and often suffer from complex mental health problems and drug addiction, added Andrea Coomber KC, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform.
Echoing concerns over prisons being used as a so-called “place of safety” for women, Ms Coomber told The Independent: “Too often, shortages in hospital places and community interventions mean that vulnerable women are ending up in jails instead of getting support.”
Once behind bars, overcrowding and understaffing in jails mean prisoners are being given less meaningful activity and time out of their cells, while often being unable to access the mental health support they need, experts warned.
“Violence often arises when severely distressed women are having to live in conditions that re-trigger the trauma of abuse and neglect many of them have experienced,” said Ms Sinha. “Despite all their best efforts, prison staff are not equipped to provide specialist, trauma-informed services.”
“When prisons are this overcrowded, they become completely ill-equipped to deal with the scale of trauma and despair amongst the prison population. Self-inflicted deaths, self-harm and assaults are all up,” said Ms Sinha, adding: “We are failing these women and the staff that work with them.”
Katie*, who was seven weeks pregnant and on anti-depressants when she was sent to prison, told The Independent: “On arrival I was told I needed to wait to see the routine doctor.
“That was two weeks. Two weeks of being locked in a cell, worried I’d be attacked. Spiralling thoughts. Withdrawals from medication. Worrying how I’d cope with a sentence that was sprung on me. Pregnant with my first baby and no idea what to expect.
“It’s suffocating. It’s terrifying. Nobody checked in with me. Nobody knew I had suffered with severe depression and had been suicidal a few years before I entered prison. I was left behind a steel door. The doctors didn’t offer me any therapy or alternative counselling. I was put back on anti-depressants but the issue at hand wasn’t met and I wasn’t supported in the most challenging time of my life. When I was most vulnerable.”
Another former prisoner described being “put in high pressure, dangerous situations, and in dangerous environments constantly” when she was first remanded to prison. She said she was “not surprised” by the rise in self-harm, warning: “There isn’t enough resources in prison for people with mental health needs. It’s not a safe place for them to be.”
Women in their early 20s are most vulnerable to self-harm in prison, according to recent research by the Agenda Alliance.
Indy Cross, the charity’s chief executive, said: “We know they do this to cope with the pain of their past, such as domestic abuse, poverty, addiction. Prison worsens these problems, heaping homelessness, unemployment and child removal onto the complex set of problems they already face.”
Describing assaults as “a regrettable flipside of unaddressed mental health problems, lack of meaningful activity” and trauma-informed staff training, Ms Cross warned that without tailored support “these kinds of figures will persist”.
“How many times do we need to keep hearing such horror stories?” she said, adding: “There’s no more time to wait. The time to act is now.”
While the government committed six years ago to significantly reducing the women’s prison population, the Howard League warned that current plans to expand the prison system include a projected 40 per cent rise in the number of women behind bars “in a system that is clearly unable to meet their complex needs”.
Kirsty Kitchen, head of policy at the charity Birth Companions, said the “exponential” rise in self-harm rates means “there can be no more excuses for the government’s failure to deliver” on these commitments.
Ms Kitchen added: “But we mustn’t only look at what’s happening inside the prisons – we need investment in mental health services in the community too, so prison is not used as a ‘place of safety’ for want of alternatives, and so that women can get the support they need when they need it, to avoid criminalisation in the first place.”
Warning that “our prisons are at breaking point”, Ruth Cadbury, Labour’s shadow prisons minister, told The Independent that the rise in violence was “yet another sign of the crisis across our prison estate, with both prison staff and prisoners at serious risk”.
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “The number of women in prison has fallen dramatically since 2010 and we are continuing to invest millions into community services to steer female offenders away from jail and help get their lives back on track.
“However, for those women who have committed crimes which warrant a custodial sentence – many of whom have complex needs – we are transforming the mental support on offer in our jails, including tailored, round-the-clock care, extra face-to-face time with specialist staff and improved self-harm training for all frontline officers.”
* Name changed
– If you are experiencing feelings of distress, or are struggling to cope, you can speak to the Samaritans, in confidence, on 116 123 (UK and ROI), email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit the Samaritans website to find details of your nearest branch.
If you are based in the USA, and you or someone you know needs mental health assistance right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Helpline on 1-800-273-TALK (8255). This is a free, confidential crisis hotline that is available to everyone 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
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