How many more deaths will it take

The treatment of female prisoners has seen some improvements, but women are still dying

woman handcuff

Shackling women rarely works, writes Eric Allison. Photograph: Steven Depolo

There is not much sunshine in my working life. Writing about prisons doesn’t give one a lot to smile about.

Only yesterday, I read yet another shocking report on Cookham Wood, a Young Offender Institution (YOI). Of all the bad penal news, disturbing stories involving child prisoners are the most depressing. Because by treating these young prisoners badly, we are guaranteeing the depressing cycle of reoffending; the revolving door, of offending, prison, offending, will keep spinning furiously.

But now and then, I look at parts of the system and some of the progressive people in it and feel a little more hopeful.

By and large, over the last few years the treatment of women in prison seems to be finally improving. The female prison population is falling and incidents of self harm and suicide, once obscenely high, are also on the decline. And they needed to be halted.

Some 12 years ago, when I started writing for the Guardian I seemed to be doing little else than report on deaths of women in prison. In 2011, women accounted for almost half of all incidents of self harm in prisons, despite representing just 5 per cent of the prison population. In 2003, six women ended their lives in one prison alone, Styal, Cheshire.

Following those deaths, the government commissioned Baroness Jean Corston to conduct a review of vulnerable women in the criminal justice system. Her findings were published in a report in 2007. But the government were slow to respond to the recommendations – 43 in total – made by Corston.

Thanks to pressure from campaigners, changes were made. Among the many improvements, ‘first night’ centres were opened in women’s prisons, where their needs could properly be assessed and those at risk of self harm monitored and counselled.

The vulnerability of women in prison cannot be over-stated. Over half of women in prison have suffered emotional, physical or sexual abuse as a child and around the same number suffer from depression.

In one area alone, parenting, the impact of imprisonment often has devastating consequences. When a father goes to prison, his partner usually looks after his children. But only 5 per cent of the children of jailed mothers remain in the family home. This affects some 18,000 children every year.

In the course of the job, I have visited women’s prisons and spoken to dozens of inmates. I have yet to meet one who wasn’t first herself a victim, in one way or another. Once, on a visit to Styal, I spoke to group of around 20 women and asked who in the room had not self-harmed. One arm was raised.

Of course there are many vulnerable men in prison, but to visit a women’s jail is to see and hear sights and sounds that would make a dry stone wall weep. So it cheers me to see the drop in numbers of women jailed and to be aware of the improvements in conditions for those that are.

Then, also yesterday, I received a statement from Inquest, the charity that supports the families of those who die in custody and an organisation for which my admiration knows no bounds.

The statement recorded the findings of an inquest jury, sitting in Bristol. It concerned the death of Natasha Evans at HMP Eastwood Park in 2013. The jury found that medical negligence contributed to Natasha’s death.

The full Inquest statement is pubished on their site and I will not dwell on the tragic, preventable, circumstances here. But what especially struck and saddened me was a line at the end, from Deborah Coles, co-director at Inquest.

It said Natasha was sentenced to four months imprisonment for a non violent offence. Natasha was not alone in this; over 80 per cent of women in custody have not physically harmed anybody.

Any sentencer, worth his or her salt, should know the facts about the vulnerability of women in the criminal justice system. If they don’t, they should not be sitting in judgement of them.

Who in their right minds would think a four month sentence helps society or the prisoner concerned? Those serving short sentences have much higher re-conviction rates than those serving longer. Didn’t the judge, or magistrate who sentenced Natasha know this as well?

When are they ever going to learn?

Rest in peace, Natasha Evans.

Click here for more information and statistics on women in prisons.

One Comment on “How many more deaths will it take”

  1. Ali says:

    Unfortunately until the judiciary is made far more representative of society and is less white middle aged or elderly men the over use of imprisonment for women will continue. A lot of these men have a specific view of a woman’s place in society and will sentence harshly any woman they believe to step outside those limited roles. Two of the judges in my case (both white upper middle class men made it very clear that I offended them greatly as I should have been at home doing housework and popping babies which I wasn’t and they made it very clear that I was to be punished for my gall to step outside of what they considered my societal role to be. The sentencing judge’s remarks are as misogynist as hell in this regard but as I had a crap lwayer this was never dealt with as it should have been. And because the defendant is effectively silenced by the court system and virtually un able to speak on their own behalf the ability to challnge such appalling attitudes is limited if non existent


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