From February 2018 to May 2019, four women have died at HMP Styal. Who cares?

“In the United Kingdom, forty per cent of sentenced women serve three months or less, and yet somehow manage to `harm themselves’ at a rate of three incidents per inmate. Women prisoners’ self harm is neither epidemic nor outbreak. It’s life. It’s part of the harm of being a woman in a neoliberal political economy. The Corston Report: a review of women with particular vulnerabilities in the criminal justice system, a review of women with particular vulnerabilities in the U.K. criminal justice system, said as much in March, 2007. Behind the Corston Commission Report sits HMP Styal, `one of the largest women’s prisons’ in the U.K. Between August 2002 and August 2003, six women died at Styal … That was then. This is now. February 27, 2009:  `The chief inspector of prisons has warned of more deaths at Styal women’s prison if services for vulnerable inmates do not improve…. John Gunn, brother of Lisa Marley, who died at Styal in January last year, asked: `How many more women have to die before something is done?’” That was then, ten years ago, to the day. This is today: From February 2018 to May 2019, four women have died at HMP Styal: Nicola Birchall, 41, February 2018; Imogen Mellor, 29, June 2018; Christine MacDonald, 56, March 2019; Susan Knowles, 48, May 2019. None of the deaths was treated as suspicious. BBC News reports, “The latest HM Inspectorate of Prisons’ report, in May 2018, was positive.” 

Here is what “positive” looks like: “95% of women said that they had problems on arrival. 53% said they had a problem with illicit drugs on arrival and 27% had an alcohol problem. 72% reported having a mental health problem. There were 735 incidents of self-harm in the six months to March 2018. Four women were transferred under the Mental Health Act in the six months to March 2018. 65% of women released who were not on home detention curfew did not have sustainable accommodation. Some women had been in and out of custody up to 11 times in 12 months.” Positive.

According to the most recent Safety in Custody Statistics, England and Wales, the general picture for incarcerated women, including remand prisoners, is equally grim: “Self-harm trends differ considerably by gender, with a rate of 570 incidents per 1,000 in male establishments (with incidents up 25% on the previous year) compared to a rate of 2,675 per 1,000 in female establishments (an increase of 24% in the number of incidents from the previous year). In the 12 months to December 2018, the number of self-harm incidents per self-harming prisoner was 4.0 for males, and 8.3 for females, increases from 3.5 and 7.0 respectively in 2017.” The majority of self-harm happens to those who have been in custody 31 days to 3 months. 

The latest Inspectorate report on HMP Styal was positive concerning the prison’s attempt to follow recommendations from earlier reports, but the situation remains dire, and that’s the point. The individual deaths of Nicola Birchall, Imogen Mellor, Christine MacDonald, and Susan Knowles are suspicious, as are the high rates of self-harm. 

In 2007, Baroness Corston noted, “There are many women in prison, either on remand or serving sentences for minor, non-violent offences, for whom prison is both disproportionate and inappropriate. Many of them suffer poor physical and mental health or substance abuse or had chaotic childhoods. Many have been in care … I have been dismayed at the high prevalence of institutional misunderstanding within the criminal justice system of the things that matter to women and at the shocking level of unmet need … There can be few topics that have been so exhaustively researched to such little practical effect as the plight of women in the criminal justice system.”

That was 2007, sparked by conditions in HMP Styal. It’s 2019, and still few topics have been so exhaustively researched to such little practical effect as the plight of women in the criminal justice system. Every death, injury, harm, unmet need, vulnerability is suspicious and should be treated as such. What happened to Nicola Birchall, Imogen Mellor, Christine MacDonald, and Susan Knowles? Nothing. There is nothing celebrate here.

(No More Prison)

When it comes to addressing the specificities, and injustices, of women’s incarceration, we are all a long way from home

Today, the London Assembly Police and Crime Committee, an all-party committee, released a report, A long way from home: Improving London’s response to women in the criminal justice system. The report argues that women matter, that women’s contact with the criminal justice system is particular to women’s situation in the world and in London specifically, and that something should finally be done about supporting “women who offend and those at risk of offending.” While the report is welcome, as far as it goes, it also notes, repeatedly, that much the same call was made a decade earlier, and that, in that decade, little or nothing has been done. In that sense, the report is far too kind to history. This is the story of the report and the past decade. None of this is new; we have been here before, too many times.

It all began with HMP Styal, in August 2002. From August 2002 to August 2003, Her Majesty’s Prison Styal suffered an “epidemic” of women’s self harm and suicide. At that time, in the United Kingdom, forty per cent of sentenced women served three months or less, and yet somehow manage to `harm themselves’ at a rate of three incidents per inmate. The Corston Report: a review of women with particular vulnerabilities in the criminal justice system, a review of women with particular vulnerabilities in the U.K. criminal justice system, described the situation in March, 2007.

Behind the Corston Commission Report sat HMP Styal, “one of the largest women’s prisons” in the U.K. Between August 2002 and August 2003, six women died at Styal. Anna Claire Baker, a 29-year-old mother of two, a remand prisoner, was found hanged in her cell in November 2002. Sarah Campbell, 18, took pills, informed the staff she had taken pills, and was promptly left alone in a cell, to stew for a bit. Rather than stew, she died, as did Julie Walsh, in August 2003. Walsh, a 39-year-old mother-of-two, died after taking pills. The tragic deaths of these six women at Styal was the impetus of the Corston Commission. According to Nicholas Rheinberg, the Cheshire Coroner who conducted the inquests into the deaths at Styal, “I saw a group of damaged individuals, committing for the most part petty crime for whom imprisonment represented a disproportionate response. That was what particularly struck me with Julie Walsh who had spent the majority of her adult life serving at regular intervals short periods of imprisonment for crimes which represented a social nuisance rather than anything that demanded the most extreme form of punishment. I was greatly saddened by the pathetic individuals who came before me as witnesses who no doubt mirrored the pathetic individuals who had died.” That was then.

In February 27, 2009, “The chief inspector of prisons has warned of more deaths at Styal women’s prison if services for vulnerable inmates do not improve…. John Gunn, brother of Lisa Marley, who died at Styal, asked: “How many more women have to die before something is done?”

The next chapter of this story involves HMP Holloway. At one point Holloway was the largest women’s prison in western Europe. Sarah Reed died, or was executed, there on January 11, 2016. On January 11, Sarah Reed, 32 years old, Black, living with mental health issues and drug addiction, the victim of a famous police brutality case, was “found dead” in her cell at Holloway Prison, north of London. Her death went relatively unreported for almost a month, until the family managed to contact Black activist, Lee Jasper. In 2012, Sarah Reed was viciously attacked by a Metropolitan Police officer. The attack was caught on camera, and, in 2014, the officer was dismissed from the force. In October 2014, Sarah Reed was in a mental health hospital when she allegedly attacked someone. Her family says she wrote to them saying she had acted in self-defense. On January 4, Sarah Reed was shipped over to Holloway Prison, to await trial. While there, according to her family, she received no mental health treatment. Prison authorities claimed that Sarah Reed “strangled herself” while in her bed. Her family doubts that narrative. Further, they say they were prevented from seeing Sarah Reed and were treated “in a hostile and aggressive manner.”Sarah Reed was the last woman to die in Holloway Prison. On July 2016, Holloway was closed, and prisoners were moved to HMP Downview and HMP Bronzefield, outside of London. According to the Chief Inspector of Prisons, in 2013, the conditions in Bronzefield were dismaying.

And that leads us to the most recent chapter, A long way from home: Improving London’s response to women in the criminal justice system. Holloway was not only the largest women’s prison in Western Europe. It was the only prison in London. So, when Holloway closed, two years ago, women prisoners of London are shipped out of town. As the report notes, first, the majority of women shouldn’t be in the criminal justice system in the first place: “The crimes that women typically commit are ‘low-level’ offences like criminal damage, theft, common assault and TV licence evasion”.  Second, the women shouldn’t be sent distances from their families and communities of support. Third, a short sentence, which is what most women receive, has long-term catastrophic effects. Fourth, the system for women needs a thorough overhaul that begins with the problems women face and addressing those problems. Finally, we have all been here, among these “findings” and recommendations, before, more than once, and we did nothing, less than nothing.

A news article on today’s report notes, “The report from the London Assembly covers the capital but has national importance.” Actually, it has global importance. As in London, so in many parts of the United States and other countries. Women prisoners are in for low-level offences that suggest need for support and assistance rather than incarceration. Women prisoners are sent greater distances than male prisoners. The system for women prisoners everywhere needs a thorough overhaul. Finally, none of this is new, we have all been here before, and we have done nothing, less and worse than nothing. The time has come, more than come, to move beyond “findings” and recommendations, and to begin the real work of overhaul and transformation.When it comes to addressing the specificities, and injustices, of women’s incarceration, we are all a long way from home.

 

(Photo Credit: London Assembly)