Select Committee on Home Affairs First Report


288. Any discussion of how best to rehabilitate women prisoners must take account of a number of related issues: in particular, the particular characteristics of the female prison population, the reasons for the recent steep increase in the number of women prisoners, and the Government's strategy for tackling problems related to the imprisonment of women. In this section of our report we address each of these issues in turn.

The rise in the number of women in prison

289. Women represent 51.3% of the population in England and Wales, according to the 2001 Census, but only 6.1% of the total prison population. The annual average number of women in prison has increased by 173% since 1992, compared to a 50% increase for men over the same period. In 1994, the average number of women in prison in England and Wales was 1,811; in July 2004, the corresponding figure was 4,487. [231]

290. The majority of women prisoners are mothers and primary carers of children aged under 16, and have accommodation difficulties, poor employment and educational backgrounds. More than 30% of women prisoners have suffered sexual abuse. In the words of the Prison Reform Trust—

    "The women's prison population is made up of a disproportionate number of vulnerable and disturbed individuals. Two thirds of women in prison show symptoms of at least one neurotic disorder such as depression, anxiety and phobias. More than half are suffering from a personality disorder. Forty per cent of women in custody have attempted suicide at some stage in their life."[232]

291. The Chief Inspector of Prisons, Anne Owers, confirmed this analysis. She told us that:

    "The extent of mental illness, of self-harm, of substance abuse in women's prisons is much higher even than that of men's prisons. The statistics are astonishing. I was in New Hall Prison in Yorkshire last week. Eighty per cent of the women coming into that prison go straight to the drug detoxification unit. That is the level of needs that the prison is responding to."[233]

292. The table below shows the breakdown of the female sentenced prisoner population by offence type. As the table demonstrates, a large percentage of female prisoners are serving sentences for drugs-related offences. This group accounted for 37% of the female prisoner population in 2002. This is unsurprising given that around 40% of women prisoners can be diagnosed as harmful or dependent users of drugs.[234] A significant (and increasing) number of women in prison are foreign nationals serving comparatively long sentences for drug trafficking.[235]

Female sentenced prisoner population, by offence type, England and Wales, at 30 June 2002

Source: Table 1.7, Prison statistics, England and Wales 2002, Cm 5996

293. Two-thirds of women in prison have dependent children. Their imprisonment has therefore a particularly acute impact on young children. The Prison Reform Trust estimates that up to 16,000 children are affected by the imprisonment of female offenders.[236] Whilst 90% of fathers in prison expect their children to be cared for by the children's mother, only about 25% of mothers in prison expect their children to be cared for by the children's father, the remainder being cared for by grandmothers, female relatives, friends or the local authority. [237] The Chairman of the Independent Monitoring Boards, Mr Bryan Baker, told us that:

    "Men go into prison and they expect the women will maintain the house and family and look after all the things while they are in. It is not true in every case, and it is easy to make generalisations, but the great majority are more concerned about themselves and what will happen to them when they come out than what is happening out there. Women have an entirely different mental approach to it when they go in. They are concerned will the house still be there; what is happening to the children; can they see the children?"[238]

294. Women are more likely to be discharged or given community sentences for indictable offences and are less likely to be fined or sentenced to custody than men.[239] In 2001, a total of 141,395 people were sent to prison and of these, 11,946 were women—around 8%.[240] The higher proportion of female receptions ('receptions' meaning prisoners received into prison during a particular time period) indicates that women are more likely than men to receive short sentences or to be held on remand.

295. The reason for this difference in treatment is that women's offending is different from men's. Statistics demonstrate that women commit far fewer offences and generally have far shorter and less serious criminal careers. In 2001, 40% of female prisoners were held for drug offences, 20% for theft and fraud offences and only 15% were held for violent offences. In 2002, 40% of female prisoners served a sentence of 3 months or less, whilst 75% were sentenced to 12 months or less.[241]

296. The huge rise in the female prison population is largely due to a significant increase in the severity of sentencing. The number of women sentenced to custody by magistrates tripled between 1992 and 2000. The use of custody for women by magistrates' courts rose from 4% in 1994 to 11% in 2002, whilst in Crown Courts it rose from less than 30% in 1994 to just over 43% in 2002.[242]

297. A two-year independent inquiry into women's imprisonment commissioned by the Prison Reform Trust concluded that—

    "the vast majority of women in prison are in prison for non-violent offences and have never been a danger to the public. They are women who the system has failed time and time again. These women are socially excluded. Imprisonment will only isolate them further."[243]

Approximately 40% of women prisoners are first-time offenders, compared with 13% of men prisoners.[244]

298. Whilst the Government has said that it wishes to constrain the overall growth in prisoner numbers, the sharp rise in women prisoners would appear to deserve particular attention. The vast majority of these women are in prison for non-violent offences and have never been a danger to the public. We recommend that the Government consider setting targets for reducing the numbers of women offenders sentenced to prison and monitor the use of the community sentences available under the Criminal Justice Act 2003 and their impact on reducing the female prison population.

The Government's strategy for women prisoners

299. In March 2004, in answer to criticism that it was failing to address the needs of the female prison population, the Government published its Women's Offending Reduction Programme. This was described as "a multi-agency strategic plan of action to deliver a distinct and joined-up response to the needs and characteristics of women offenders". It runs over three years, with annual reviews and a final evaluation. Its purpose is:

Priorities for 2004-05 include making community interventions and programmes more appropriate and accessible for women; meeting women prisoners' mental health needs and dealing with substance misuse; and "communicating, training and providing guidance on gender issues". [246] A Women's Policy Group is monitoring progress towards agreed action points and a final evaluation of the Programme is due to be completed at the end of 2006-07.

300. In a separate development, in November 2003 the Government announced the disbandment of the separate women's prison estate. From 1 April 2004, the 17 women prisons (and two women's wings attached to male prisons) have been integrated for management purposes within their geographical areas rather than managed as a separate bloc. The separate women's estate had itself been created relatively recently, in 1999, in order "to cope with the rapid increase in the number of female prisoners and provide a focus on the specific needs of this population". The latest reorganisation was justified on the basis that "returning management to the geographical areas would fully exploit the opportunities available to prisoners to address their offending behaviour and resettlement needs". Under the new arrangements, "the particular needs of female prisoners will continue to be met by a dedicated section of staff with a senior manager in overall charge". This Women's Policy Group, within the Prison Service Directorate of Operations, is intended to maintain the specialist knowledge accumulated within the women's estate, and to provide support on gender-related issues to area managers.[247]

301. In April 2004 we visited HMP Brockhill, a women's local prison near Birmingham. Through our discussions with the Governor, prison staff and prisoners held at the establishment, we were made aware of the very different nature of a female prison establishment and the very different needs with which the female prison population present.

302. We welcome the Government's publication of a programme specifically focused on reducing female offending, but we note with disappointment that this is couched in very general terms. A clearer and more detailed statement of planned actions and expected benefits is needed. We recommend that the Government develops a more focused prison rehabilitation strategy for women prisoners which can be incorporated into the National Action Plan.

303. We are concerned about the lines of accountability and operational responsibility for women prisoners as a minority group, following the abolition of the separate women's estate in April 2004. In the absence of a senior operational manager with specific responsibility for that estate, we recommend the appointment of accountable officers with responsibility for women prisoners at each establishment where women are held. The responsibilities of the accountable officer should include monitoring the development of a women-oriented prison rehabilitation regime.

304. Unlike men who are categorised into four security categories, women are only categorised as suitable for closed (high security) or open (low security) conditions. Women are held in 19 prisons, of which 17 are designated as ''female establishments'. Despite the increase in the female prison population, the number of open places for women has declined from almost 500 prior to 2000 to fewer than 250.[248] Thus the location of women is more heavily dependent on the number and type of places available across the prison estate, as dictated by the general prison regime and the demands of the male prisoners who form a massive numerical majority, than on the actual risk the female prisoner poses. As a result, women are more likely than men to be in a prison a long distance from home, making it harder to receive visits and keep in touch with family. At the end of 2003, 50% of women prisoners were held more than 50 miles from their home town and 25% were held more than 100 miles away.[249] It remains the case that around 94% of all prisoners are male and that prisons are organised on a male ethos. The costs of both custody and the provision of services to women prisoners held in predominantly male prisons are not broken down as a percentage of budget and the Governor does not have to report to a dedicated manager with responsibility for women prisoners.

305. In our view, women prisoners, like men prisoners, should be held in prisons according to the security category that is appropriate to the risks they pose. As we have already noted, women prisoners in general pose much less of a security risk to society than men prisoners. Current sentencing policy and the number of open places available for women prisoners means that the security conditions under which they are held are not necessarily correlated with actual risk. We recommend that the Government take action to remedy this mismatch as a matter of urgency. In particular, we recommend that the number of places for women in open prisons be substantially increased.

306. The relatively small number of women's prisons in relation to the size of the present female prison population means that women prisoners are scattered about the country to a greater degree than men prisoners, a long way from home and family and unable to benefit from resettlement strategies. The only way to address this is either to invest substantially in the women's prison estate, or to invest in reducing prisoner numbers—and the latter is likely to prove more cost effective.

The rehabilitative regime for women prisoners

307. HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, Anne Owers, told us that "the conditions and treatment in many women's prisons fall far short of what we require".[250] Very few of the rehabilitative interventions which can be accessed by women prisoners were designed with women's distinct needs and circumstances in mind. For example, neither of the two accredited offending behaviour programmes run in women's prisons (the Enhanced Thinking Skills Programme and the Cognitive Skills Booster Programme) were designed specifically for female offenders. A number of women's prisons run short ad hoc offending behaviour programmes for women prisoners, specifically devised by the staff of the particular establishment and addressing topics such as domestic violence, self-injury and anger management. The Prison Service has stated that it is currently developing an offending behaviour programme specifically for women.[251] This programme (known as Choices, Actions, Relationships and Emotions, or CARE) is designed for women serving longer custodial sentences for more serious or persistent offending, and who are deemed to present a medium to high risk of being reconvicted within two years of release. It follows that the programme will be relevant to a very limited number of women prisoners.

308. We recommend that the delivery and content of offending behaviour programmes should be adapted to meet the specific needs of women prisoners, taking account of those women's different life experiences and placing their offending within the context of what may often be long-term victimisation or abuse.

309. The same problems arise in relation to drug treatment programmes: whilst a variety of basic and intensive drug treatment programmes have been devised and accredited for male offenders, no efforts have been made to construct equivalent programmes for female offenders. For example, the four 'Action on Drugs' rehabilitation programmes running in women's prisons have been accredited for men in custody but not women. The Women's Policy Group is only now undertaking necessary adaptations to accredit these programmes for women in custody. We welcome the Government's commitment in its National Action Plan that research will be carried out into the specific risk factors relating to women's substance misuse and offending.[252] However, we do not think this response to the problem is adequate, given that around 40% of all women prisoners can be diagnosed as harmful or dependent users of drugs.[253] We recommend that the substantial increase in the female prison population be matched with a proportionate increase in the number of intensive drug treatment programme places available in women's prisons from the 455 places currently available.

310. Our general recommendations on drugs in prison are applicable to women prisoners as well as to men prisoners: see paragraphs 268-87 above.

311. Marginalisation of women prisoners is discernible in relation to education, vocational training and work programmes. As far as women's educational provision is concerned, we have seen nothing that counters the criticism made by the then Chief Inspector of Prisons in 1997 that there is an

    "absence of an overall assessment of the educational and vocational needs of the [female] prisoner population and a policy to identify the role education services are expected to play in women's prisons … There is little co-ordination and co-operation on educational matters among prisoners for women."[254]

312. Women prisoners have significantly fewer opportunities to attend courses vocationally geared to practical work than male prisoners, and do not have access to the same range of opportunities for work and education. The Social Exclusion Unit's report in 2002 found that only 24% of women with a prior skill had the chance to put their skills into practice through prison work. The statistics from HMP Brockhill obtained as part of our 'Prison Diary Project' indicate that 65% of women prisoners spent no time in vocational programmes or prison work. It appears that because the majority of women prisoners are mothers, the expectation is that they will not seek work when they are released from prison.

313. We consider that whilst the majority of women prisoner's first priority on release may be to secure accommodation for themselves and their children, women prisoners should nevertheless be given equal opportunities to access education, relevant skills training and work programmes as part of their prison regime. In devising a work strategy for women prisoners, we recommend that the Prison Service should consult with women prisoners themselves to identify the types of skills training and work programmes they would find most useful and relevant to them. The general focus on work-like experience and relevant training we have set out in respect of men prisoners is equally important for women prisoners. Outside prison the Government has supported women—including mothers—into work through the New Deal, on the grounds that this is best for them and their children. It is perverse to apply a different attitude to women prisoners who, arguably, have most to gain from secure employment on increased incomes.

314. Resettlement is another area where provision for women prisoners is even worse than that for men prisoners. The Prison Service has only recently begun to redesign a resettlement programme tailored originally for male short-term prisoners to reflect the needs of female offenders. This followed criticism from the Correctional Services Accreditation Panel. The Prison Service intends to pilot this programme during 2004-05.[255] The primary preoccupation for the majority of women prisoners is supporting their children whilst they are in custody and finding a home for themselves and their children on release. Until these basic concerns are met, there is a very real difficulty in engaging women prisoners in other forms of rehabilitative intervention.

315. We recommend that the Prison Service, in partnership with relevant community agencies and social support services, devises a resettlement plan for women prisoners, the contents of which should include basic advice on the care of children whilst women prisoners are in prison, and guidance on childcare, benefits entitlement and housing needs on release.

316. There is a need to ensure that community support services reach the people most in need of their help. This observation is particularly pertinent in relation to socially excluded women, including ex-prisoners. In an effort to consider how best to foster the links between the care group and the care provider, the Committee visited a women's centre in April 2004. The Asha Centre in Worcestershire works in the community with social service and community support agency partners to help socially excluded women, including female offenders recently released from prison. Details of the work of the Centre are set out in the box below.

The Asha Centre

The Centre opened in November 1994. It was established in response to criticism of the probation services for failing to make relevant provision for the specific needs of female offenders following release. The Centre helps women who have difficulty accessing or engaging with mainstream community support organisations to get the services they need. Over 15 local agencies provide services (part-time) on site. The Centre receives up to 20 referrals per month. It is currently funded by the Government Office for the West Midlands.

Female offenders—defined as women serving a suspended sentence, a community sentence, on probation or former short-term prisoners—are a particular focus of the Centre's work. It runs a 16-week programme led by probation officers specifically designed for female offenders. The programme focuses on women's offending behaviour and offending-related problems, at the same time as attempting to identify services relevant to each offender's needs. An independent report on the Centre, published by the London School of Economics in April 2004, concluded that it was successfully achieving its aims and objectives (Dr J Rumgay, The Asha Centre: Report of an Evaluation). The report found that women offenders were taking up community support services of which they had previously been unaware or which they had been deterred from pursuing. In addition, women were being helped to identify specific, concrete goals for their continuing resettlement. Interviews with the community agencies involved in the project identified mutual benefits, including accessing a new population group of socially disadvantaged women, reduction of pressure on core services, facilitation of service delivery and complementarity of services.


317. We were impressed by the innovative work in which the Asha Centre is involved. The Centre is assisting women in transition to have the confidence to take the first steps away from re-offending lifestyles, and to challenge patterns of abuse and offending behaviour. In our view, this is an important part of the resettlement process for ex-prisoners. It demonstrates the positive role of independent organisations in fostering community support networks which facilitate reintegration and resettlement. We recommend that NOMS should take active steps to learn from such models of good practice in developing its resettlement strategy.

318. A further area of concern is that of the recruitment and training of staff responsible for women prisoners. HM Chief Inspector of Prisons noted in 2001 that approximately two thirds of women's prisons were governed by male governors.[256] Male senior managers continue to dominate. It is important to ensure that women officers can reach the most senior positions in the Prison Service. Both male and female prison officers need training on how to manage female prisoners and address the specific risks and needs they present. The Prison Service has adopted a staff training pack, Understanding and Working With Women In Custody.[257] We commend the recent introduction of gender-sensitive training. We recommend that the Prison Service monitor the ratio of male/female personnel within women's prisons to ensure so far as possible the presence of adequate numbers of female prison officers at all levels of the prison management structure.

319. It is clear from previous paragraphs that women prisoners suffer differential treatment regarding the level of purposeful activity they are offered in prison, from provision of cognitive skills programmes to work opportunities to resettlement planning. Keeping women constructively occupied in prison is not viewed with the same priority as keeping men occupied. The types of rehabilitative interventions designed for women prisoners are limited.

320. We do not see any justification for lower levels of rehabilitative interventions for women prisoners. We recommend the development of a specific and focused rehabilitation strategy for women prisoners informed by independent research identifying trends across the women's estate in relation to levels of mental illness amongst women prisoners, the extent of drug misuse, and problems emerging from mother and baby units.[258] We recommend that the Government develop national policies in relation to women prisoners' health care, childcare, education, employment, contacts with families, alcohol and drug misuse, and counselling and resettlement .

321. We recommend the development of a comprehensive needs assessment programme orientated to women prisoners which identifies the individual female prisoner's problems at the same time as investigating the wider context of social exclusion and abuse suffered by those prisoners.

231   Home Office, Statistics on Women and the Criminal Justice System Report (2003), published annually pursuant to section 95 of the Criminal Justice Act 1991 Back

232   Ev 203 (para 7.1.1) Back

233   Q 218 Back

234   Prison Reform Trust Factfile (July 2004), citing Singleton et al, Psychiatric Morbidity among Prisoners in England and Wales, (Office of National Statistics, 1998) Back

235   RefBack

236   Q 54  Back

237   Statistics on Women and the Criminal Justice System (2001) Back

238   Q 119 Back

239   Statistics on Women and the Criminal Justice System (2001) Back

240   Prison Statistics England and Wales 2001 (Cm 5743) Back

241   Statistics on Women and the Criminal Justice System (2003) Back

242   Ibid.  Back

243   Justice for Women: The Need for Reform, (2000). The Inquiry was chaired by Dorothy Wedderburn. Back

244   Prison Statistics England and Wales 2000 (Cm 5743) Back

245   Home Office, Women's Offending Reduction Programme: Action Plan, published on 11 March 2004, p 5 Back

246   Home Office answers to Committee questionnaire on Departmental Annual Report (June 2004) (to be printed) Back

247   Prison Service press release, "Management change for women's prisons", issued 12 November 2003 Back

248   Carlen, P and Worrall, A, Analysing Women's Imprisonment, (2004), p 36 Back

249   Prison Reform Trust Factfile, July 2004 Back

250   Q 218 Back

251   An initial pilot of the programme is scheduled for September 2004 with the intention of submitting the programme for accreditation in 2005 (Ev 274). Back

252   National Action Plan, p 30 Back

253   Office for National Statistics, Psychiatric Morbidity among prisoners in England and Wales (1998)  Back

254   HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, Women in Prison: A Thematic Review (1997), p 120 Back

255   Ev 274 Back

256   HMCIP Follow-Up Report (2001) Back

257   Commissioned by the (then) Women's Policy Group and produced by the Trust for the Study of Adolescence, the training pack is designed to be of use to all staff working in women's prisons, together with other professionals who work with women in custody (Ev 274). Back

258   Currently, four prisons accommodate new mothers in mother and baby units: HMP Holloway, HMP Styal, HMP New Hall and HMP Askham Grange provide 80 places for women prisoners in these units. The Prison Service has plans for two further units providing an additional 22 more places to be opened sometime this year. Back

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