London ~~ Sunday March 30 2008, page 22
Sick and suicidal: plight of women in UK jails
Most women prisoners have mental health problems, and nine of out 10 were convicted of non-violent offences. Now a new study shows an alarming rise in suicides and self-harm - and behind the statistics lie ruined lives and shattered relatives. With four inquests about to open, Amelia Hill reports on the growing scandal in Britain's penal system
Women's wing at a prison (Chris Radburn/PA)
Read also from 2006: UK women's prisons organised around the needs of men and Howard League for Penal Reform urges Blair Govt to close women's prisons
On the day Diane Kent set herself on fire in her cell at Low Newton prison, County Durham, two months ago, she had already tried to hang herself twice and asked a prison officer to take away her lighter because she was scared of harming herself. According to incomplete prison records, her request was refused.
How a woman who had repeatedly committed such extreme acts of self-harm was able to evade the observation of officers for long enough to set fire to herself, why she had a lighter in her possession, and why her request to have it taken away was denied are just a few of the reasons her family and her solicitor are calling on the government to hold an independent inquiry into Kent's case, instead of leaving it to the usual investigation by the prison service.
For more than five weeks after her suicide attempt, 27-year-old Kent lay in a medically induced coma in the intensive-care unit at the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle. To the amazement of her doctors, she eventually regained consciousness, but is now struggling with third-degree burns from her thighs to her earlobes, the loss of use in her fingers and a face so damaged by the flames that, according to her sister, Sheryl Hodges, she was virtually unrecognisable.
'I saw Diane just after the incident, when she was unconscious, and it was one of the most horrendous things I have ever seen in my life,' said Hodges. 'I don't know how she fought through those injuries to survive, but I have two even more important questions I need to ask: why was my sister in prison at all when she was clearly mentally ill, not criminally inclined? And will she have to go back to prison once she recovers? Because if she does, I have absolutely no doubt that she will try to kill herself again and this time she will be successful.'
'Diane's mental-health issues mean she has never been in control of her own behaviour and is therefore incapable of complying with the law,' said Hodges. 'It was obvious to anyone who ever met Diane that she simply couldn't cope with life. She needed 24-hour support in the community or in a psychiatric unit. But despite attempts by her family to get help, during the entire decade that she was in and out of the criminal justice system, she was only ever treated as a deliberate criminal. There was no way my sister should ever have been in prison; she clearly couldn't cope. Her suicide attempt was the inevitable result.'
New statistics revealed in response to questions raised in Parliament on behalf of The Observer have revealed how tragically typical Diane's story is among the UK's female prison population, which stood at 4,430 last Friday. According to the findings, there has been a 48 per cent rise in the number of self-harm incidents in women's prisons in the past five years. Foston Hall in Derbyshire has seen a 530 per cent increase since 2003, while Styal prison in Cheshire has seen a 250 per cent increase over the same period.
Women jailed at Eastwood Park prison in Gloucestershire will harm themselves an average of 6.3 times a year, those in Foston Hall will do it 4.7 times and women in Bronzefield in Middlesex will manage to seriously hurt themselves 4.1 times for every year of their sentence.
The findings have raised strong feelings among MPs. 'It is nothing short of a national disgrace that incidents of self-harm in women's prisons have increased by two thirds in just five years and that on average each female inmate deliberately hurts herself nearly three times a year,' said the justice spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, David Howarth. 'These shocking figures demonstrate just how desperate the situation is for women in our overcrowded penal system.'
The female prison population almost doubled between 1997 and 2006, despite there being no corresponding rise in women committing more serious crimes. Nine out of 10 were convicted of non-violent offences. According to a 2003 report by the Prison Reform Trust, women who would previously have received community penalties are being imprisoned while those who would have been sent to prison are being given longer sentences.
Diane Kent survived her suicide attempt - just - but others have not been so lucky. The list of those who have died in prison reveals how desperately vulnerable and prone to suicide and self-harm female prisoners are. The plight of these women will be highlighted this week when a new report into the deaths of women in custody, 'Dying on the Inside', is published by Inquest, the independent body that monitors and advises on inquests. It is the first analysis of all self-inflicted deaths of women jailed between 1990 and 2007.
It will be followed next week by four separate inquests into the self-inflicted deaths of 30-year-old Lyndsey Wright, in Holloway prison, London, in 2005; 26-year-old Vicky Robinson in New Hall, West Yorkshire, in 2005; 22-year-old Sheena Kotecha at Brockhill, Worcester, in 2004; and 28-year-old Lisa Ann Woodhall at Eastwood Park in 2006.
Deborah Coles, co-author of the report, says the 184-page study provides incontrovertible evidence of serious human rights abuses of women in prison. It also, she says, highlights the abject failure of the criminal justice system in dealing with women in trouble with the law.
The report shows that between 1990 and 2007, 115 women died in prison in England, and 88 of those deaths were self-inflicted. Fifteen women died in HMP New Hall, the same number in Holloway and 11 in Styal. While women dying in prison are not a homogeneous group, the study draws together evidence that, for the first time, identifies the key characteristics shared by women who take their lives while incarcerated.
The report shows women who die in prison are predominantly young. Almost two in three of the women who died between 1990 and 2007 were aged 30 years or under, and just over a fifth were between 18 and 21 years of age.
Many were sent to prison for non-violent offences, with more than a quarter convicted or charged with theft and handling stolen goods. Among those who died while on remand, this figure rises to more than a third, meaning that many of those who died may not have gone on to receive custodial sentences.
The report also reveals that a disproportionate number of women are dying while remanded or unsentenced. Between 2000 and 2007, women on remand made up 22 per cent of the total female population but 31 per cent of those who died. This is of particular concern, given that in 2003, for example, 59 per cent of women on remand did not receive a custodial sentence and one in five of those taken to court was acquitted.
Previous suicide attempts are one of the best indicators of future suicide, and half the female remand prison population had tried to kill themselves the year before entering prison. Likewise, a disproportionate number of women in prison are at risk of self-inflicted death due to mental-health problems.
'The facts show that behind the statistics are stories of preventable tragedies,' said Coles. 'The high level of distress and vulnerability among women prisoners is well documented and yet our report reveals a persistent theme running through the histories of the women who have died of failure in the criminal justice system to enforce its own duty of care. Neglect and complacency have been institutionalised in women's prisons as the same issues repeat themselves with depressing regularity year after year.'
These issues, supported by evidence from inquests seen by The Observer, include appalling conditions in prison, the systemic neglect of women's physical and mental health, inadequate healthcare, repressive regimes and systems of punishment, use of segregation and isolation for suicidal women, overuse of force, failure to implement suicide prevention guidelines, lack of staff training and poor communication.
Last year, Baroness Corston was commissioned by the government to conduct a review of women in the criminal justice system. The report, triggered by the deaths of six female inmates at Styal jail in Cheshire over a 12-month period, was expected to be a watershed moment for the prison service, leading to significant changes in the way women prisoners are treated.
Last March, the Corston Review reported its 43 recommendations, the most far-reaching of which was the proposal to close all 15 women's jails in the next 10 years, replacing them with a network of small custodial units that will allow female prisoners to be held closer to home.
The review also suggested that only women sentenced to more than two years would be held in custody. All other female criminals would receive community punishments.
The review was warmly welcomed by penal campaigners. 'Imprisonment is a potentially life-threatening and ineffectual response to women's offending,' said Frances Crook, director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, who gave evidence to the review. 'We recommend, as a matter of urgency, that prison must be abolished as the central response to women's offending.'
But while the government reacted by saying it supported the majority of Corston's proposals and was setting up a working group to see how smaller secure and non-secure units might work in practice, it has also admitted there is to be no extra money forthcoming to fund its implementation.
'The reaction of the government to the Corston Review was incredibly disappointing,' said Crook. 'They just set up a third review, thereby reacting with yet more procrastination, delay and cowardice.'
Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, was furious. She said that without money, little would change for women in the justice system. 'With enormous sums of public money earmarked for so called "titan" jails, at best women may be bolted on the side, limpet-like, in specialist units,' she said. 'For government to respond to a major review, which it commissioned, by setting up yet more reviews is insubstantial and pathetic.'
Justice minister Maria Eagle has established an inter-ministerial sub-group on women offenders that is investigating the realities of implementing the Corston Review. 'We have accepted the basic point that Jean Corston made, that there are a number of women in prison who could be better dealt with elsewhere,' she said. 'There are some serious and violent offenders who need to be locked up to protect the public, but there are many women in prison who are exhibiting behaviour caused by other factors in their lives who could be helped by alternatives [to prison].' Eagle, however, says a key challenge is persuading judges and magistrates to imprison fewer women. 'We have to make sure that those who pass sentence are aware of the impact prison has on a woman's life. Even a short sentence can lead to her losing her home and family. I don't want to be critical of the sentencers. They need to be made aware of the impact prison has on women but they also need to have more alternatives to imprisonment available to them.'
Campaigners for penal reform, however, are impatient. With the level of self-harm in women's prisons increasing every year, they say it is deplorable that the same issues of concern that were apparent in the Eighties are as prevalent today as they were then.
'This ongoing abuse of human rights requires an immediate and fundamental rethink of the way women are dealt with by the criminal justice system,' said Coles. 'The research is so conclusive that the solutions are self-evident. We don't need any more reviews or reviews of reviews. We need the abolition of prison for women, and investment in radical, community-based alternatives must be prioritised and the complex reasons behind why women enter the criminal justice system - poverty and social inequality - addressed as a matter of priority. It couldn't be more simple.'
Two tragedies that could have been avoided
Vicky Robinson, 26, was the fourth woman to kill herself at HMP New Hall in 10 months.
Robinson was diagnosed with personality disorder, depression and a history of hallucinatory voices. She had had difficulties with drugs and alcohol, and had been in prison once before her admission to HMP New Hall in November 2004.
She had a long history of self-harm and suicide attempts. She frequently self-harmed by ligaturing and would often say this was to try to get rid of the voices. Following admission to HMP New Hall, she was held in the segregation unit at her own request. She had self-harmed previously in prison and remained on the prison self-harm/suicide monitoring procedure.
During December 2004 and January 2005 Robinson was plagued with voices and there were concerns she was not eating. She continued to self-harm, most often by ligature. She was found dead, hanged in her cell, on 2 February 2005.
Anne Owers, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, had admitted the previous year that HMP New Hall was holding women and girls who should not be there. She said there was an urgent need to provide an alternative therapeutic environment where appropriate treatment and support could be offered to vulnerable women prisoners.
Despite this warning, two of the three women who died in 2004 had histories of self-harm and extensive contact with psychiatric services.
The inquest into the death of Vicky Robinson opens at Wakefield Coroner's Court on 7 April and is expected to last 12 days.
Sheena Kotecha, 22, killed herself at HMP Brockhill in Worcestershire in 2004.
Kotecha had been described by psychiatrists in her pre-sentence report as depressed, at risk of self-harm and vulnerable, but there was no one watching over her cell.
Kotecha - popular, with a job, aspirations and a loving family - was found hanged in her cell just hours after collapsing in court on receiving a nine-year sentence for her role as a getaway driver in an armed robbery.
Proof of her vulnerability was so clear to prison officials that while on remand she was placed on suicide watch. Behind bars, she lost weight dramatically. By the time she died, she weighed around five stone, two stone below her normal weight.
She wrote to her parents, telling them she was desperate to end her life because of bullying by inmates at the prison. Yet according to a prison service press statement, on the first night of her sentence Koteha was not regarded as a vulnerable prisoner, and was not being monitored as such. She was the sixth woman to commit suicide at Brockhill in six years.
Kotecha's is the first death in custody to be investigated by the independent prisons ombudsman. Previously, the prison service carried out its own internal inquiries into prisoners' deaths.
When the inquest opens next week, the ombudsman will be aware of Brockhill's history. In October 2002, a report by the Chief Inspector of Prisons found that both suicide and bullying were 'critical issues' at the prison. Just three months later, on 14 January 2003, 18-year-old Leanne Gidney killed herself in Brockhill, 12 days into a sentence for robbery.
- 17 The number of women prisons in England
- 4,248 The average number of women in prison in 2006, up from 1,560 in 1993
- 37 The percentage of women in prison who have attempted suicide
- 6 The percentage of women in the total prison population
- 36 The percentage of women prisoners in 2004 convicted of drugs offences
- 19 The percentage of women in prison who are foreign nationals - compared to about 12 per cent of males
- 70 The percentage of women prisoners with mental health problems
London ~~ Sunday March 30 2008 , Page 34
A shameful way to treat women prisonersLeader
Justice Secretary Jack Straw made exactly the right noises last week when he warned against the overuse of the prison system. 'It is not true that the public view [of sentencing] is that of some kind of lynch mob,' he argued. 'Very often, they come to a ... decision that the media might regard as softer.'
Yet the government can easily be accused of following a mob mentality. Too often in the past, it has adopted a macho 'lock them up' posture when it comes to criminal justice, no more so than in the case of women in prison.
For it is an unedifying and deeply shaming fact that this country is locking up too many vulnerable women. On any given day, around 1,000 women in English and Welsh's jails - a fifth of the female prison population - are on remand. And of these, only half go on to receive a jail sentence.
Prison is the wrong place for many of these women. Nearly two-thirds of those currently in jail have some form of mental illness and in recent years suicide and self-harm have risen dramatically.
As we report today, the number of self-harm incidents in women's prisons has increased by almost 48 per cent over the last five years. That this is a horrific statistic hardly needs saying.
The government commissioned a review, led by Baroness Corston, to make recommendations. The result were 42 powerful proposals, one of which - replacing women's prisons with a network of small custodial units that will allow female prisoners to be held closer to home - the government claims to support. It has set up a working group to consider its implementation. Beyond that lacklustre move, Corston's work appears to have been shelved. The truth is that the government's reaction has been to dither.
If the government is serious about reducing recidivism, caring for vulnerable women and taking pressure off Britain's overcrowded prisons, it needs to take Corston's proposals seriously and implement them.
One idea is that women sentenced to less than two years should be punished in the community. If this worked, the most far-reaching proposal - that 15 women's jails should close within 10 years - could be met. We should no longer use the prison system as a dustbin for the disturbed. We're persecuting some of the most damaged and vulnerable women in our society.