Firstly I intend to outline the present situation regarding these prisoners and what makes them vulnerable before attending to current practices and their success or otherwise. In England and Wales approximately 5% of convicted prisoners are female which is close to the European average. According to the Fawcett Society (2008), half of them have been victims of domestic violence and one third have been subject to sexual abuse. 70% suffer from two or more mental health disorders and 16% regularly self harm compared to 3% of imprisoned males. Frighteningly 37% had attempted suicide at some point.
One of the most significant stressors for incarcerated women is separation from their family and it has been estimated that every year over 17,000 children are separated from their mothers due to imprisonment with only ? of those cared for by the father, spouse or carer. The statistics regarding children in custody are unsettlingly similar. Glover and Hibbert (2008) completed a report on behalf of Barnados and found that one half of children in custody had experienced some kind of abuse, 22% had been living in care, 16% had special educational needs and 8% had already attempted to commit suicide at some point.
Clearly both women and young people are more vulnerable than the average prisoner. One would expect therefore their treatment to differ from mainstream imprisonment. However, particularly in the case of women this does not necessarily appear to be the case. As a result of there being far fewer female prisoners, there are less female-only prisons. This exacerbates the issue of family who are often living far from the prison, often over 100 miles. This makes it very difficult for women to maintain family links.
Additionally prisons by the very virtue of being largely male environments are tailored towards the male experience, particularly where females are housed in a section of a male prison. However routine concessions are made for female prisoners such as being able to wear their own clothes unless they are an escape risk and in some prisons such as Holloway they may be allowed all day visits. Pregnant women can give birth in hospital rather than prison and if a female prisoner has a child under 18 months they can apply to have them with them in a mother and baby unit.
There are currently four of these in England and Wales. Other services that are open to all prisoners are access to a doctor or healthcare staff, access to a chaplain or minister and access to the Samaritans or a Listener. Some prisons have rehabilitation programmes and some have therapeutic communities. Recent HMIP reports suggest that conditions for women are improving. HMP Morton Hall, a semi-open women’s prison was inspected in January 2011. It was deemed to be safe and relaxed, offering plenty of purposeful activity.
Levels of self-harm had fallen and there was little overt bullying. Drug issues were well managed and mediation was used effectively to diffuse tensions. The prison performed less well with regards to contact with family and friends which was deemed to be limited. Despite the improving performance of HMP Morton Hall, it is due to be converted into an immigration detention centre. HMP Send, a closed women’s training prison was inspected in February 2011. It houses the largest group of women serving life sentences.
The report was mixed in that they found those at risk of suicide were well supported but rates of self harm remained high and there had been two self-inflicted deaths since the last inspection. Again they felt that the support to maintain family contacts was underdeveloped particularly as the prison houses so many mothers. Positive comments were made regarding the lack of overt bullying or violence although they felt that insidious low level intimidation was not adequately addressed.
HMP Holloway, the largest women’s prison in Europe has had a tumultuous history and an inspection team walked out after 2 days saying that they would only return once conditions had improved. Clearly improvements have been made but many feel more could be done. Both the Prison Reform Trust and the Fawcett Society feel too many women are imprisoned at all and that this vulnerable group could be effectively dealt with in other ways. In 2009 two thirds of imprisoned women had been sentenced to 6 months or less, the vast majority for non-violent offences such as theft, handling and drugs.
The Prison Reform Trust argue that community sentences and/or attendance at women’s centres would achieve the same result without the risks of imprisonment. The Fawcett society suggest “adequate and robust” alternatives such as electronic monitoring. They are also in favour of the introduction of gender specific standards for women’s prisons. Even more concerning than the plight of incarcerated women, is that of young offenders. Between 1990 and 1994, 25 children killed themselves whilst in custody. The situation appeared to improve but a further series of high profile deaths in custody drew attention to the matter once again.
For example Joseph Scoles, aged 16, hanged himself in Stoke Heath Young Offenders Institute. The report into his death said it was “an example of how society failed to protect a vulnerable boy”. Whilst in general, conditions do appear to be improving in Young Offenders institutes, some such as Feltham still seem to be struggling. A questionnaire completed by residents there in 2010 found that only 20% felt they could speak to a peer mentor or listener when they needed to and only 22% felt they would be taken seriously if htey told a member of staff they were being victimised.
These results are significantly lower than comparator institutions. An HMIP & YJB report completed 2009/10 had mixed results. More detainees said they had been offered someone to talk to on arrival and more said they felt they would be taken seriously if they reported bullying and it was easier to use the telephone or arrange visits than previously however more reported feeling unsafe or frightened some of the time.
Despite largely improving conditions, organisations such as Barnados think that many of these children should not be in custody at all. Despite a reduction in 10 – 17 years old sentenced to custody 1997 – 2007, there was a 483% increase in 10-14 year olds. They argue that this age group should not be considered for custody unless they have committed a grave crime or a serious offence and they are a persistent offender. At the time of their report 22% of young offenders had been imprisoned for a breach of a community intervention.
Barnados argue strongly that this should never result in custody unless it is for a serious or violent offence. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child seem to agree and have asked why Britain tolerates the unnecessary jailing of juveniles. In many countries children are placed in reformatories or welfare institutions, in other words they are treated like children who have had a difficult start in life. There is no doubt that more people are being sent to prison than before and inevitably this leads to overcrowding.
This has the greatest impact on the already vulnerable and is compounded by difficult financial times and the economic restraint that has inevitably led to fewer staff. It seems that these institutions are aware of the difficulties in managing vulnerable prisoners and are making changes to try and support them but the general consensus appears to be that many of these prisoners should not be there at all and that there are better ways of punishing and rehabilitating them.