For women in England and Wales, `safety in custody’ means harm, death, hopelessness

On Thursday, the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Justice issued its Safety in custody quarterly update to September 2014. The report is grim. In 2014, 84 people killed themselves `in custody’ in England and Wales That’s the highest figure in seven years and an increase of 12% over the year before. The rise in suicide is surpassed by the rise in self-harm, up more than 25%. Overall, it was a banner year for the prison state, with 243 deaths in custody: “The 243 deaths in prison custody was an increase of 28 on 2013 and is the highest number of deaths recorded in a calendar year. This increase has been the result of both natural cause and self-inflicted death.”

Wrong.

The increase has been the result of rapidly rising prison populations, decreased access to mental health and other services, overworked prison staffs, and the general toxic soup that goes under the genteel name of `austerity.’

For ten years, the prison population has increased. The rise in prison suicides has more or less kept pace with that rise, but the rise is self-harm far exceeds the rise in population. And that’s where gender kicks in. Of the 84 people who committed suicide, three were women, up a bit from the one in 2013, but still low. Self-harm, on the other, is another story. According to the Ministry’s report, “Females are more likely to self-harm than males.”

Women make up 5% of the prison population and 27% of the incidents of self-harm in prison, over the past year. Where men had 222 incidents of self-harm per 1000 male prisoners, women had 277 per 1000 female prisoners. Even more telling, of those men who engaged in self-harm, each did so 2.8 times. Of those women prisoners who engaged in self-harm, each individual did so 6.2 times within a twelve-month period.

This what passes for safety in custody. As Frances Cook, of the Howard League, noted, concerning the rate of suicide in prison, “The numbers hide the true extent of misery inside prisons and for families.”

While the gender maths didn’t make headlines, they should have. As Soroptimist UK Programme Action Committee along with the Prison Reform Trust have noted, too many women are being sent to prison [a] for too little cause,[b] for too long, when [c] they could easily receive alternative sentences in their home communities. Furthermore, women prisoners know what the deal is when they leave prison: fewer than one in 10 women released from a prison sentence of under 12 months managed to secure a ‘positive employment outcome’ within a year of release, three times worse than the equivalent figure for men. Once in, there’s no way out.

There has to be a way out, and it begins with closing a so-called justice system that reflexively sends increasing numbers of women into overcrowded and often distant prisons for little or no reasons. If women are committing self-harm six times in a year, the problem is not `criminal justice.’ The problem is the criminal denial of access to health care. There is no justice where, for women, “safety in custody” means hopelessness, self-harm, and suicide.

 

(Image Credit: The Mental Elf)

About Dan Moshenberg

Dan Moshenberg is an organizer educator who has worked with various social movements in the United States and South Africa. Find him on Twitter at @danwibg.