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‘Extremely Concerning’ Safety Issues in Women’s Prison

An unannounced inspection of a women’s prison raises new concerns about safety across the female estate. Sian Norris reports

A female prisoner in Brockhill women’s prison. Photo: Andrew Fox/Alamy

‘Extremely Concerning’ Safety Issues in Women’s Prison

An unannounced inspection of a women’s prison raises new concerns about safety and wellbeing across the female estate

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An “extremely concerning” report of a women’s prison in Gloucestershire has revealed women being held in “appalling” conditions, raising concerns about the safety of women across the prison estate. 

An unannounced inspection has led to HMP/YOI Eastwood Park Prison being given the lowest safety rating, in a decision the prisons inspector called “very unusual… but the gaps in care and the lack of support for the most vulnerable and distressed women were concerning”.

The inspectors found that women held in segregation in a space known as Unit 4 were placed in “appalling” and “dilapidated” cells that were “covered in graffiti”. One cell was “blood spattered” and some had “extensive scratches on the walls”. This, the inspector explained, “reflected the degree of trauma previous residents must have experienced”. 

Women are held in segregation when their mental health needs or associated behaviour means they cannot be held elsewhere in the prison. But the inspector concluded that “no prisoner should be held in such conditions, let alone women who were acutely unwell and in great distress”.

The inspector also reported two incidents where women had taken their own lives, and rates of self-harm had increased by 128% since the last inspection, which took place before the pandemic. 

Women “repeatedly told” the inspector that self-harm was “caused by a number of triggers”. They included “too much time locked in their cells, a lack of purposeful activity, frustrations about basic requests taking too long to resolve, insufficient support with mental health issues and not enough contact with family and friends”. 

Sonya Ruparel, chief executive of Women in Prison told Byline Times: “These high levels of despair and distress are all too familiar in women’s prisons across the country. This cannot continue.”

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A Prison Service spokesperson said: “This is a deeply concerning report and we are already addressing the serious issues it raises including appointing more staff and creating a new taskforce to improve women’s safety at the prison.”

The report was published the same week as the Ministry of Justice released its figures on women’s safety in prison, which revealed there are two incidents of self-harm every hour across the female estate. 83% of the women housed in Eastwood Park were suffering with mental health difficulties. 

The report also comes at a time of intense scrutiny on the safety of women inmates, following a row in the Scottish prison service about the decision to place a double rapist in a women’s prison. The convicted sex offender had started transitioning after being arrested and charged. The Scottish Government has announced a stop to trans prisoners convicted of offences linked to violence being placed in the female estate. 

However, while the discussion on trans rights, self-ID and prison has captured the nation’s attention, far less coverage is given to the wider crises of safety in the female estate, devastatingly exposed in the inspectorate’s report. 

Blood on the Walls

While the Inspector offered praise to the staff at Eastwood Park for their “dedication” and “courage”, the report warned of a lack of training and supervision that was putting both the staff and women’s safety at risk. 

Prisoners spoke of feeling dismissed and ignored. Staff shortages had led to reduced provision of mental health support – with the integrated mental health team unable to deliver a full range of therapeutic interventions to vulnerable inmates. 

But the most damning findings related to Unit 4, where women were housed in “appalling” conditions. Cells were described as “grubby, poorly furnished” and “contained a lot of graffiti”. Inspectors saw an empty cell that was ready to be occupied, but had blood on the toilet wall. 

Such conditions would be dangerous and challenging for any individual, but even more so for women who were already vulnerable. 

The report found that prison leadership “struggled to address” the needs of women who are acutely mentally unwell “as they did not have the appropriate staff or facilities”. This led to women being housed in Unit 4, but the “appalling environment was exacerbated by a lack of therapeutic support, and senior leaders had lost sight of the extent of these problems”. 

The inspector expressed concern that women who self-harmed had force used against them to stop the behaviour, or were put into segregation when there was not “adequate justification”. Those placed in segregation were supervised by staff who had not had specialist training, which in turn put the staff’s mental wellbeing at risk. 

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“We were seriously concerned about the impact this was having on the women and officers working there, who were responsible for caring for some very vulnerable prisoners,” the inspector wrote.

Unit 4 has since been refurbished and HMP Eastwood Park has set up a dedicated Safety Taskforce Group to improve the outcomes for women in the prison’s care. The prison has also restored the specialist and therapeutic support that inspectors expect for the vulnerable women in its care.

The inspector did find some positives. The report praised the support for women experienced bereavement, or who were survivors of domestic abuse. It also recognised the work of the Visiting Mum project, designed to help mothers in prison maintain contact with their children. 

Women make up 4% of the prison population. They are disproportionately likely to be victims and survivors of domestic violence and child abuse. The Ministry of Justice’s Female Offender Strategy has committed to reducing the number of women in prison – however such an aim was thrown into doubt due to plans to increase the number of female prison places.

“The Inspectorate is rightly urging immediate and meaningful change to ensure the safety of women in Eastwood Park,” said Ruparel. The most effective way to achieve this is by radically reducing the women’s prison population and ensure women’s needs, including mental ill health and homelessness are met in their communities.”

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