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The Forgotten Scandal of Women’s Safety in Prisons

With intense scrutiny on the sending of transgender offenders to women’s prisons, Sian Norris reports on the much-ignored safety issue impacting incarcerated women – self harm

A prison officer watches at a mother and baby unit in a UK jail. Photo: Jeff Morgan/Alamy

The Forgotten Scandal of Women’s Safety in Prisons

With intense scrutiny on the sending of transgender offenders to women’s prisons, Sian Norris reports on the much-ignored safety issue impacting incarcerated women – self-harm

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There are two incidents of self-harm every hour in women’s prisons, with rates of self-harm eight times higher in the female estate than in male prisons, according to Government data published today. 

The number of self-harm incidents in the three months leading up to September 2022 increased by 8% in male prisons but by a shocking 42% in the female estate, peaking at 4,807 incidents in the third quarter of last year. 

A small number of individuals who repeatedly self-harm at high rates have a disproportionate impact on this figure: just over a half (52%) of prisoners who self-harmed in 2021 did so more than once.

The shocking numbers come at a time of intense media scrutiny on women in prison, over the decision not to send a serial sex offender who now identifies as female to a women’s prison in Scotland. 

Initially it was decided that Isla Bryson, who raped two women and was previously known as Adam Graham, had initially been moved to a female prison. However, after concerns about the safety of women inmates, the convicted rapist was moved to the men’s estate. The Scottish Government has since stated that transgender prisoners convicted of crimes relating to violence against women and girls should not be housed in the female estate. 

Questions remain, however, about transgender prisoners currently in Scotland’s women’s prisons convicted of sexual violence against women and girls. 


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While focus has rightly been on the safety of women housed with sexually violent offenders, less attention is paid to the ongoing health and safety issues of female prisoners, such as self-harm, which is now at the highest level on record in women’s prisons. 

According to the new Ministry of Justice figures, the total number of self-harm incidents across the male and female estate during the quarter up to September 2022 was 15,230. It reveals how the number of incidents in the female estate is smaller than in the male estate, but the rate of self-harm per 1,000 prisoners is much higher. 

There were 4,327 incidents of self-harm per 1,000 female prisoners and 534 incidents per 1,000 male prisoners in the three months up to September. Women make up 4% of the prison population in the UK.

Taking a longer view across the year, and a similar pattern emerged. In the 12 months to September 2022, there were 12.7 incidents of self-harm per self-harming female compared with 4.1 incidents per self-harming male. Men were, however, more likely to end up in hospital than women – this reflects trends outside of prisons, too. 

The rate of self-harm incidents in the male estate decreased by 3% from 143 in the 12 months to September 2021 to 139 in the 12 months to September 2022. This is alongside a 1% decrease in self-harm incidents.  

Patterns of Injustice

There are just over 3,000 women in prison, with the majority incarcerated for non-violent offences such as shoplifting. Nearly three-quarters (74%) of those convicted for failing to pay their TV licence are women – although no one was jailed for offences related to TV licences in 2020 and 2021.  

In contrast, men are far more likely to be in prison for violent offences. The indictable offence groups with the highest proportion of women prosecuted were fraud and theft – for men they were sexual offences (98% male) and possession of weapons (93% male).

And while men are more likely to only go to prison for a second or third offence, of all female offenders cautioned or convicted in 2019, 35% were first-time offenders, compared to just over a fifth of for men.

Many people of both sexes in prison will have complex needs, including trauma and substance abuse. But for women in prison those complexities are often rooted in their own experiences of victimisation. The majority of women in prison are survivors of male violence. 

Nearly two-thirds (60%) of imprisoned women are victim/survivors of domestic abuse, and more than half reported experiencing child abuse, including sexual abuse as a child. In contrast, just over a quarter of male offenders were abused as children. 

A pattern of short sentences can have a huge impact on women’s mental health, particularly for mothers of dependent children. Mothers attending court for a non-violent offence may not be anticipating a prison sentence, and yet are separated from their children without a chance to say goodbye or even arrange childcare. Experts have warned that prejudices against mothers offending have led to unduly harsh sentences.

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For women who are pregnant while in prison, mental and physical health is another concern. Pregnant women who are incarcerated experience higher rates of pre-term labour, and are missing out on life-saving obstetric appointments. Pregnant women in prison are five times more likely to experience a still-birth than women in the community.  

Alongside the self-harm figures, the Government published today its Female Offender Strategy Delivery Plan for 2022-25, which recognised the complex issues around women’s incarceration – from victimisation, mental health, motherhood and prejudice. It remains committed to ensuring there are fewer women in prison and a greater proportion of female offenders managed outside the prison system, such as in the community.

However, there are concerns this strategy is undermined by plans to increase the number of female prison places – the MoJ predicts that the number of women in prison will increase from just over 3,000 to 4,500 by September 2026 as a consequence of the Government’s commitment to employ 23,400 more police officers.

In 2020, the Government established a Women’s Estate Self-Harm Task Force to try and tackle the issue, working with psychologists to provide enhanced support to women with complex needs. The approach included a pilot scheme to better help women manage the emotional challenges of the early days in custody.

It has also implemented a gender specific Offender Management in Custody model to provide each woman held in prison with dedicated support.

A Prison Service spokesperson told Byline Times: “We are continuing to improve support for the most vulnerable women in custody, including specialist assistance for those who have experienced domestic abuse, round-the-clock helplines and improved training for staff. We are also investing £37 million on measures to reduce levels of self-harm and violence so all offenders receive the help they need to turn their backs on crime.”

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