Women in Prison – The Real Situation for Female Inmates in the UK

Figures taken from May 2014 state that the female population in UK prisons is 3,956; significantly less than the numbers of male offenders, which is over 20 times higher.

As a result, the conditions inside female-only prisons are often largely disregarded by the media, in favour of more attention-grabbing headlines about better known male establishments. Here’s some more information about what life is really like for UK women behind bars.

hand in jail, behind bars

‘Unacceptable Conditions’

A 2012 report from Nick Hardwick, chief inspector of prisons, claimed that the conditions in the female unit at HMP Styal were ‘more shocking and distressing than anything I had yet seen on an inspection.’

He went on to highlight how prisons were ‘simply the wrong place for so many of the distressed, damaged or disturbed women they hold.’ Although just 5% of the prison population are female, at this time, women accounted for 50% of the incidences of self-harm.

Made to Clean Up Her Own Miscarriage

In 2013, HMP Peterborough came under scrutiny for its treatment of a pregnant female inmate. According to reports, Nadine Wright, then 37, suffered a miscarriage; and was then left on her own with the foetus, to clean up the resulting mess.

In court, her barrister informed the jury that Ms Wright had been placed in prison for shoplifting. She had been stealing food, he added, out of hunger, as her benefits payments had not come through. Ms Wright was pregnant at the time of her arrest and was known to have existing mental health problems.

Female Prisons – Creating More Trauma?

According to author and consultant Stephanie Covington, highlights the fact that currently, most female prisons in the UK are run on the premise that the inmates are inherently ‘bad’ and must be treated as such.

However, she argues that many of the inmates are highly traumatised individuals, and often victims of crime themselves. A third have suffered some form of sexual abuse, over 50% have experienced domestic violence and half have attempted suicide at some point in their lives. Sending them to prison, she points out, merely serves to re-traumatise them, rather than helping them to move forward in their lives.

Additionally, many of these women have young children. These children are more likely to become emotionally and mentally traumatised themselves as a result of their mother’s incarceration.

Rates of Reconviction High

Figures released this year indicate that rates of reoffending among female inmates remain high, despite the fact that 80% of women are incarcerated for non-violent crime. 50% of all female prisoners are reconvicted within 12 months of their release, a staggeringly high proportion given the circumstances.

Simon Hughes, commenting at the time as Justice Minister (Lib Dems) commented that many of the women currently in prison should not have been in there in the first place, and proposed that the numbers of female inmates should be reduced by 50%. However, as yet, no significant changes have been made.

Supporting Women in Prison

Currently, it costs the UK tax-payer approximately £41,000 a year to keep a female imprisoned. Given that most women are in prison for non-violent crimes, it does raise the question… is it worth it? Isn’t there a more effective solution?

In the meantime, it’s imperative to support female prisoners as much as possible. A large factor in this process is enabling them to have access to their loved ones; their partners, parents and even more importantly, their children.

Our competitive tariffs aim to help women prisoners achieve this, enabling them to call mobile phones at a reduced landline rate. Given that women have a meagre weekly allowance in prisons, and they have to purchase necessary items such as sanitary towels out of this allowance, every bit of help counts. To find out more about our tariffs, please refer to our site.


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