Mentally unwell women are being sent to prison instead of hospital due to lack of NHS beds, MPs warn

·3-min read
Sixty-eight women who were remanded to three prisons in the 12 months to August 2021 should not have been there due to mental illnesses, the report says  (Getty Images)
Sixty-eight women who were remanded to three prisons in the 12 months to August 2021 should not have been there due to mental illnesses, the report says (Getty Images)

Mentally unwell women are being imprisoned unnecessarily as self-harm rates surge in prisons across England, MPs have warned.

Evidence from the Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons to an all-party parliamentary group (APPG) revealed 68 women, remanded to three jails in the 12 months to August 2021, should have been moved elsewhere due to their mental illnesses.

Women with acute mental health problems were being remanded to prison “for their own safety” due to a shortage of NHS beds and lack of appropriate services within the community, a report to the APPG said.

The APPG on women in the penal system has now called for the repeal of legislation that gives the courts the power to remand people in prison “for their own protection”.

Pre-pandemic self-harm rates for women in prison were five times higher than men, the report said. This increased to up to eight times after restrictions to curb Covid-19 were implemented, with some women self-harming daily.

In one prison, HMIP found 20 women sharing just two toilets.

Previous inspections found damp, mould and evidence of an ant infestation in Downview prison. Living accommodation units were described as ‘completely inappropriate’ in Eastwood Park prison.

Women were also kept in their cells for up to 23 hours a day during the pandemic, which meant that undertaking activities to improve their mental health, such as running, were difficult.

Jackie Doyle-Price MP, co-chair of the APPG, said: “From filthy living conditions to alarming evidence about self-harm, our inquiry has considered in great detail the impact that imprisonment has on women’s health and well-being.

“This requires urgent attention. The government has published a Prisons Strategy White Paper, which recognises that women in the criminal justice system have complex needs. Unfortunately, however, the current proposals represent a missed opportunity to address the specific issues women face.

“The focus should be on stopping unnecessary use of custody – not prison expansion, which would only pull more women into a system that fails to provide the care and support they require.”

The briefing states that most of the women in prison did not need to be there. There were 4,787 first receptions of women into prison in the year ending June 2021, with more than half of the women on remand. One in three were in for a sentence of less than 12 months.

The inquiry heard about the psychological struggles women in prison faced in the pandemic, exacerbated by restrictions limiting contact between visitors.

HMIP reported that one woman found family visits so upsetting that she made the decision to stop. She found it unbearable to see how distressed her children were at not being allowed to hug her.

Some prisoners missed hospital appointments due to a lack of staff, and two babies died in women’s prisons over the last three years.

NHS Inclusion told the APPG that women serving shorter sentences and those travelling to and from prison frequently could face disruption to any treatment or medication they might have been receiving before custody.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “We are clear that custody should be the last resort for women, and the number entering prison has fallen by nearly a third since we launched our Female Offender Strategy in 2018.

“We have also made significant improvements to support female offenders – building new prison places to increase the availability of single cells and in-cell showers while providing greater access to education, healthcare and employment.

“In addition, we are investing heavily in rehabilitation and treatment programmes, which will see £80m help fund drug treatment services so more women can turn their backs on crime.”

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