Where were you when all those women prisoners killed themselves?

Women prisoners protest at HMP Styal

Today’s news out of England and Wales is predictably grim: “2016 becomes worst year ever recorded for suicides in prisons.” According to the Howard League, “The Howard League for Penal Reform has been notified of 102 people dying by suicide behind bars since the beginning of 2016 – one every three days. With five weeks remaining until the end of the year, it is already the highest death toll in a calendar year since current recording practices began in 1978. The previous high was in 2004, when 96 deaths by suicide were recorded.” And so now another end-of-year Round of Concern occurs. Absolutely none of this is new, and absolutely nothing positive will happen until the concern is manifested by more than the usual suspects.

From incarcerated refugee women in India to women prisoners in Australia, Belgium, Canada, Den- mark, England and Wales, Finland, Ireland, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Scotland, and Sweden to women in prisons in the United States and Canada, the news is and has been the same, and for quite a while. Reporting on suicide rates in Canada in 1999, scholars noted, “The fact remains, however, that the suicide rate among female prisoners is abnormally high.” In 2010, scholars reported, “In England and Wales over a quarter of a century, suicide rates in prisoners were reported to be approximately five times higher in men than age-standardised general population rates.” And here it is, the end of 2016, “with around 3,900, mainly vulnerable, women locked up in English jails and 19 deaths already recorded this year (the highest for 12 years)” … and that was three weeks ago.

Today, the Howard League and the Centre for Mental Health released Preventing Prison Suicide, “the latest in a series of reports published by the two charities as part of a joint programme aimed at saving lives in prison.” Frances Crook, the chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, wrote, “Whilst the government has promised (yet again) to recruit additional staff, we cannot wait months for them to appear, especially as such promises have proved empty in the past. The only way to save lives, make prisons safe for inmates and staff and help people to live law abiding lives on release is to reduce the number of prisoners. Once the number of prisoners is down, the challenge is to make prisons work properly in the public interest but that is such a distant prospect at the moment. Today’s challenge is simply to keep people alive.”

Scotland said NO! to the casual wreckage of women’s lives and provided alternatives, which include tearing down many women’s prisons, sending women who need help to places where they will receive assistance and where their dignity, as women, will be respected. Women don’t have to be sacrificed on the altar of carceral efficiency in which the challenge is simply to keep people alive. How have we arrived at a place where the challenge is simply to keep people alive? By turning our backs on the imprisoned women. Suicides in prisons and jails have risen more or less steadily over the past decade, at least, and that rise has been noted and documented, occasionally deplored, and then generally forgotten. Now is the time to stop forgetting, to remember in advance what you will say when someone, years from or tomorrow or tonight, looks at you and asks, “Where were you when all those women prisoners killed themselves? What did you? What have we done?”



(Photo Credit: New Statesman / Don McPhee/ Guardian)

Women on community sentences are being failed by the system

Hayley, a former offender, worked for the St Giles Trust’s Wire project, which proved highly effective at helping women prisoners resettle after release from jail. Funding for the project ended March 2015.

The last big change put in place by Chris Grayling still standing is the break up of the 100 year old successful probation service. The impact on women has been catastrophic and something needs to be done urgently to change the system to protect women.

Women given a short prison term now have to be handed over to private companies to supervise them for a year after their release. This didn’t happen until Grayling unnecessarily added it to everyone given a short prison sentence. Some will argue that it was introduced to help and support women, and men, but as I far as I can see it is doing neither, it just punishes them for longer and sets them up to fail. We are already seeing hundreds of people being returned to prison for failing to obey the strictures imposed by the community rehabilitation companies (there is an oxymoron for you).

Many more women are given a community sentence but they too are being failed.

Baroness Corston and I went to see Simon Hughes when he was (briefly) the prisons minister to urge him to make sure that women’s centres were funded as part of the privatisation of probation. He didn’t. The consequence has been that women’s centres have had their funding cut by the private companies and some have withdrawn from delivering justice services completely because it was no longer financially viable.

I have seen a letter from the minister responsible for equalities and justice, Caroline Dinenage, clearly stating that women are being short-changed in the new landscape.

She admits that the capital coming from the sale of Holloway will not benefit women but will sink into the building of huge new prisons for men.

She admits that CRCs do not have to fund women’s centres or provide women only services. In fact, the cut-rate contracts and payment by results model pushes the CRCs to do everything on the cheap and that means getting as many people as possible processed through the system as they can. Group work is the way they do it. It is totally unsuitable, and possibly dangerous, to place a lone woman in a group of men to deal with offending behaviour which I fear is what will happen to women in rural areas and small towns where there simply are not enough women to form a group.

Anyway, group work is not appropriate for many very vulnerable women. The success of women’s centres has been to care for women as individuals. It works, as the Ministry of Justice research and evaluations show.

These years of expertise and experience of successful working with the few women who commit crimes is being lost.

The CRCs are not caring for women properly and safely; they are too expensive.

The only route out of this morass is to take women out of this structure completely.

I suggest we look at having a national system for managing women in the penal system including on community sentences. The CRCs would probably welcome having no more responsibility for managing the handful of women in their area and a national service, or the probation service, could resurrect the centres of excellence and good practice.

I would be all part of a chipping away at the muddle that is ‘Transforming Rehabilitation’ that over coming years is likely to implode anyway. Let’s rescue women first.


(This piece first appeared on Frances Crook’s blog. The original is here. Thanks to the Howard League for Penal Reform for allowing us to share this.)

(Photo Credit: Martin Godwin / The Guardian)