Amy suffers from bipolar disorder and depression. She is also HIV positive. She has been charged for a string of minor offences, as have the rest of her family: they are all PPOs (prolific and priority offenders). Two days ago she was released from prison for the umpteenth time. She had been incarcerated at HM Prison Drake Hall, a women’s closed prison near the village of Eccleshall in Staffordshire.
Cornton Vale is Scotland’s only women’s’ prison and has been the focus of much research. This article is about it’s possible closure and has some interesting information about the conditions in the prison and general issues around women’s imprisonment.
Jail isn’t working for women. Too many are being sent there and too many keep going back. As a commission set up to look into the problem prepares to publish a report suggesting sweeping changes to improve the system, Catherine Deveney visits Scotland’s only women’s jail to look at just what’s been going wrong
Ethnographic research is concerned with the lived experiences of participants in particular social groups or settings, and has been central to sociological understandings of imprisonment since the 1940s. As far as possible, ethnographers immerse themselves in the social world they are seeking to understand. While there are clear limits to the extent to which a researcher can participate in prison life, all ethnographic research shares an interest in culture and meaning. Over eight months in 2007-8, Abigail Rowe conducted an ethnographic study of coping and social support in two women’s prisons in England, drawing on extensive observations and interviews with staff and prisoners. Here she shares some of her findings.
The way women are treated in prisons will leave England and Wales “aghast and ashamed” in years to come, the Chief Inspector of Prisons said today. Nick Hardwick said the terrible levels of self-mutilation and despair in one women’s unit “kept me awake at night” and the responsibility lies squarely at the door of successive governments. In a highly-critical lecture, he said the circumstances of the women held in the Keller Unit of Styal Prison in Wilmslow, Cheshire, were “more shocking and distressing than anything I had yet seen on an inspection”. “We can’t go on like this,” he said. “Prisons, particularly as they are currently run, are simply the wrong place for so many of the distressed, damaged or disturbed women they hold.
One of the country’s most experienced prison governors has condemned the use of short-term sentences that put thousands of women behind bars each year.
In a letter to the justice secretary, Ken Clarke, Clive Chatterton states that his final role as governor of Styal’s women’s prison in Cheshire left him disturbed and bewildered. Chatterton, who spent 37 years working in prisons before retiring three months ago, says that urgent reform is needed and called for the government to vigorously pursue alternatives to jail.
He said that many judges and magistrates he had spoken to “acknowledged that many of these women did not require a custodial sentence but then ask: ‘What else can we do with them?’” Chatterton is calling for a “warts-and-all review of the aims and intent of the use of custody”; an immediate end to short sentences; more women to be transferred to secure mental health units where they can receive the right care; and alternatives to prison that could be funded by the “huge” savings that would be derived from not jailing the third of women currently imprisoned for minor offences.
Styal is one of the country’s larger women’s prisons, serving the north west of England. Many of the women detained come from relatively deprived communities in the Manchester and Merseyside areas. Like other large local women’s prisons, Styal holds a wide range of prisoners, many with significant social needs and a wide range of vulnerabilities, including alcohol and drug problems. Some have severe mental health problems which often manifest in serious self-harm. Forty per cent of women, many more than at comparator prisons, reported having alcohol problems on arrival and, although a lower proportion than previously, 42% said they had a drug problem when they arrived. Nearly a quarter of women in our survey – more than in other comparator prisons and previously – reported having a disability and more than half said they had emotional wellbeing and mental health issues. As well as short sentence and remand women coming directly from the courts, the prison holds young adult women, life sentence women and other women serving longer sentences, and mothers and their babies.
Does prison sound like the right place for most of these women?
There are some useful facts and figures about female incarceration in England in this article that inform several strong arguments against most women being sent to prison. It is, of course, a news paper article and, even though, it’s the Guardian, you should find other authoritative ways of checking the figures.
A plea for women’s prisons to be shut and inmates switched to community programmes is to be delivered to the Government today by a powerful alliance of senior police officers, magistrates, economists and penal reformers. They argue that the move would help to rehabilitate vulnerable offenders, cut crime and save money for the taxpayer.
Kenneth Clarke, the Justice Secretary, welcomed the report from the independent Women’s Justice Taskforce and is expected to implement many of its proposals. But with law and order climbing the political agenda, he could run into resistance from the Cabinet’s more hardline members. His sentencing Green Paper, due to be published this month, will aim to stop the ‘revolving door’ of crime by diverting criminals with mental health, alcohol or drug abuse problems into treatment.
The female prison population in England and Wales stands at 4,100, more than double the number 15 years ago. Most inmates are serving short sentences for non-violent offences such as repeat shoplifting.
The taskforce, which was set up last year by the Prison Reform Trust (PRT) and was backed by the Association of Chief Police Officers, said Mr Clarke’s plans to cut the number of jail terms under 12 months provided “a timely opportunity to look again at how women’s justice is delivered”.