Women are dying in UK prisons – and it’s a feminist issue, says new report

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Moya Crockett
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A major review into deaths in women’s prisons says we should view them as “a form of violence against women”.

The government is failing vulnerable women in prison, according to a new report that frames the deaths of female prisoners as “a form of structural violence against women”.

The report, titled Still Dying on the Inside, was conducted by charity Inquest and launched by Baroness Jean Corston on Wednesday 2 May.

Corston, a Labour peer, was the author of the Corston Report, a landmark review of the treatment of vulnerable women in the criminal justice system. Published in 2007, the report revealed horrendous conditions in women’s prisons, and called for a “radically different”, “holistic” and “woman-centred” approach.

However, Corston says that since the Corston Report was published, few improvements have been made in the treatment of women prisoners.

“I’m appalled at the rate at which we’re going backwards,” she told The Guardian.

This latest review shows that 94 women have died in jail in England and Wales since March 2007, with 2016 the deadliest year on record for women’s prisons. The 94 deaths included at least 37 that were self-inflicted.

Still Dying on the Inside also shows that 116 women died while on probation following their release from prison between 2010 and 2017, including 31 suicides. 

A significant proportion of women in prison have experienced domestic violence, abuse and/or other trauma before being convicted of a crime.

Because of this, and because of the lack of therapeutic care provided to many of these women, the report argues that the deaths of female prisoners should be perceived as a “social justice and a feminist issue”.

Many women who end up in prison have been through traumatic experiences such as homelessness 

Emily Hartley, 21, from Leeds, was the youngest woman to die in prison in 2016. Before being imprisoned, Hartley had a history of mental health problems including self-harm, suicide attempts and drug addiction. 

She had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and emotionally unstable personality disorder (EUPD) as a teenager, and was also raped.

In May 2015, Hartley was remanded in custody after setting fire to herself, her bed and curtains, and was subsequently given a 32-month sentence for arson. She took her own life at New Hall Prison near Wakefield in April 2016, writing in her suicide note that it was “ridiculous” that prison officers had not taken seriously her history of self-harming.

“She had been trying to get help [in prison],” said Hartley’s mother, Diane Coulson. “She knew she was getting ill… She tried to tell people and she had not been heard.” 

Corston said she was disappointed that conditions in women’s prisons seemed to be getting worse, more than a decade after the publication of the Corston Report.

“More women died in prisons last year than [in the year] before my report,” she said.

“I blame the privatisation of the probation services, the extension of powers that see women given short sentences recalled to prison for even the smallest breach of their licence – last year more than 1,000 women were recalled to prison for minor infractions such as failing to turn up for a probation appointment – and the change in funding that has seen women’s centres forced to shut.”

Prison is often a “disproportionate response” to women who have committed non-violent crimes, says Deborah Coles 

Women make up just 5% of all prisoners in England and Wales, and most female prisoners (84%) have been convicted of non-violent offences such as theft related to poverty and addictions (47%). Two-thirds of women in prison are mothers of dependent children.

Female prisoners have much higher rates of deaths, suicides and self-harm than their male counterparts. In 2017, there were 2,031 incidents of self-harm per 1,000 female prisoners, compared with 427 incidents per 1,000 male prisoners.

The incidence rate of women who required hospital treatment after self-harming also increased significantly between 2016 and 2017, rising by 39% to 183 incidents.

Deborah Coles, executive director of the charity Inquest, said that the treatment of women in prisons is “a social justice and a feminist issue”.

“Law breaking by women differs markedly from that by men. It is less frequent, and less serious,” she said. She added that women who end up in prison are “amongst the most powerless and disadvantaged in society, largely due to traumatic life experiences”.

These experiences include, but are not limited to, “sexual and physical abuse, domestic violence, exploitation, periods of homelessness, institutional care, self-harm, educational disadvantage, trafficking, racism, drug and alcohol misuse and mental illness, underpinned by poverty and inequality”.

“For far too many women, prison remains a disproportionate and inappropriate response,” she said.

Coles said that Inquest was “laying down a challenge” to the government, politicians and policy makers.

“Recognise women’s imprisonment as a form of structural violence against women. Honour our nation’s international treaty obligations to safeguard vulnerable women and girls. And work together towards dismantling and eradicating the outdated and failing women’s prisons that blight our criminal justice system and society today.”

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, contact the Samaritans on 116 123 or email 

Images: Getty Images