Women in prison
There are around 3,800 women in prison. At under 5% of the total prison population, this number has been stable for several years. Straight away, we can see a significant difference between male and female offenders: most are male and it is rare for a woman to be imprisoned.
When we look at patterns of offending, the difference between male offenders and female offenders, considered as groups, continues. Women and men commit different types of offences and for different reasons. Overall women commit significantly fewer serious and fewer violent offences than men. For example:
• Women make up only 3% of all arrests for sexual offences
• Women make up 5% of murder convictions receiving a life sentence
• Offences for which multiple men and no women received life sentences in a given year include: rape, attempted murder, GBH, robbery and kidnapping
By contrast, some “lower-level” offences are over-represented amongst women. For example:
• 70% of TV Licence evasion offences are committed by women.
• Women commit 70% of all truancy offences
• Women commit 55% of all benefit fraud
• 30% of all prosecutions for shoplifting are of women
These differences in offending are reflected in the sentencing patterns for men and for women, with women, considered as a group, receiving shorter custodial sentences than men, considered as a group. For example, 72% of immediate custodial sentences for women were for 6 months or less.
There are strong links between women’s acquisitive crime, for example theft and benefit fraud, and their need to provide for their children. These links are considerably less likely in the case of male acquisitive crime. Coercion is also an important factor in female crime: almost 50% of women committed their offence to support the drug use of someone else, usually their male partner. This compares to under a quarter of men.
As a group, women in prison are very different from men in prison. Women are more vulnerable, they are more likely to have experienced violence and abuse, often since childhood. They are more likely to have mental health problems and more likely to self-harm and commit suicide. For example:
• Over 30% of female prisoners report a history of sexual abuse, compared with 10% of male prisoners.
• Almost 60% of women reported experiencing domestic violence.
• There is a high prevalence of traumatic brain injury amongst female prisoners (65%). The majority of these injuries were caused by a male partner.
• Almost 50% of female prisoners have mental health problems compared with under 20% of male prisoners.
• Whilst women make up 5% of the prison population, around 25% of self-harm incidences occur in the female estate. The rate of self-harm incidents per individual is also higher for women (6.4 incidents per self-harming individual) than for men (3.0 incidents per self-harming individual).
There are important social differences between female and male prisoners with female prisoners far more likely to be primary carers of young children than male prisoners. The comparatively small number of women who are imprisoned means that there is only a small number of female prisons. The small number of prisons means that women are more likely to be imprisoned further away from their home than men. This frequently has a negative impact on family relationships and relationships with their children, particularly where women are the primary carers for their children. By contrast, men’s home lives outside prison usually continue during their absence in prison.
Women prisoners need single-sex prisons and services
Women prisoners are entitled to single-sex prisons for the same reason that all women and girls are entitled to single-sex spaces and services. Our right to these is provided for in the Equality Act (2010).
We have seen that women in prison are, as a group, extremely vulnerable: the majority have come from abusive backgrounds and have experienced violence and sexual violence from men. Rates of mental ill health are high. Rates of self-harm are high. The men in their lives have often been one of the reasons why they commit crime. That women in prison are an extremely vulnerable group is accepted throughout the Criminal Justice System.
It is also accepted throughout the Criminal Justice System that female offenders do best when they are in environments away from men. The first comprehensive statement of this was the Corston Report (2007) which examined women in prison and in the Criminal Justice System. The Report found that “women have been marginalised within a system largely designed by men for men”. The Report concluded that the fundamental differences between male and female offenders and those at risk of offending meant a distinct approach was needed for women. The Report recognised “The need for a distinct, radically different, visibly-led, strategic, proportionate, holistic, woman-centred, integrated approach.” Female-only spaces and services were seen as key to this and to enabling women offenders to successfully tackle the issues around their offending.
Since the Corston Report, the importance of women-only environments for female offenders has been consistently emphasised. Evidence shows that women-centred initiatives providing women-only services work, leading to a reduction in arrests, a reduction in prosecutions and a reduction in the number of women sent to immediate custody:
Women in prison need space away from males. Prison needs to be a place of safety as far as is possible. For some women, this will be the first time they have been in a place away from the men who abuse them. Where males are included in this space, this is not possible because the experiences of these women mean that the mere presence of a male is a threat.
The MoJ has consistently recognised the importance, effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of single-sex services for female offenders. Why undermine this by including males? What is more important? Providing the environment that has the best chance of creating lasting positive change for women and reducing offending? Or validating the identity of a small group of males?