Women’s prison population
- Women represent 5% of the overall prison population.
- The number of women in prison in England and Wales stood at 4,211in December 2011.
- Between 2000 – 2010, the women’s prison population increased by 27%.
- Most of the rise in the female prison population can be explained by a significant increase in the severity of sentences. In 1996, 10% of women convicted of an indictable offence were sent to prison, in 2010 14% were.
- The proportion of women prisoners under sentence aged 40 and over has risen from 18% in 2002 to 28% in 2009.
Women prisoner background
- One in four women in prison has spent time in local authority care as a child.
- Nearly 40% of women in prison left school before the age of 16 years, almost one in 10 were aged 13 or younger.
- 30% of women were permanently excluded from school.
- Over half the women in prison report having suffered domestic violence and one in three has experienced sexual abuse.
- 19% of women were not in permanent accommodation before entering custody and 10% of women were sleeping rough.
Custodial sentences and previous convictions
- In the 12 months to June 2011 80% of women entering custody under sentence had committed a non-violent offence, compared with 70% of men.
- Women serve shorter prison sentences than men and for less serious offences. In the 12 months ending June 2011, 59% of women entering prison under sentence serve sentences of up to and including six months, compared with 48% of men. Theft and handling was by far the most common offence, accounting for 34% of sentenced receptions.
- 28% of women in prison had no previous convictions – more than double the figure for men (13%).
- 13% of women serving sentences of under 12months had no previous convictions, compared with only 8% of men.
Foreign national women
- At the end of September 2011 there were 650 foreign national women in prison, 15% of the women’s prison population.
- 46% of foreign national women in prison are serving a custodial sentence for drug offences, compared to 21% of women of British nationality. Women imprisoned for drugs importation are largely from Nigeria, Jamaica and South Africa.
- 16% of foreign national women imprisoned are there for fraud and forgery offences (usually possession of false documents)
Women on remand
- Women on remand makeup 18% of the female prison population. These women spend an average of four to six weeks in prison and nearly 60% do not go on to receive a custodial sentence.
- The number of women on remand has remained broadly static over the past year rising by 1% to 789 in September 2011.
Indeterminate sentences for Public Protection (IPP)
- As of March 2011 there were 150 women in prison serving IPP sentences, just over 2% of the total IPP population.
- Nearly 80% of IPP sentences for women surveyed by the Chief Inspectors of Prisons and Probation were for offences of arson, which is often an indicator of serious mental illness or self-harm.
Women prisoner Mental Health and Self Harm
- Women account for 47% of all incidents of self harm.
- 30% of women (as compared to 10% of men) have had a previous psychiatric admission before they come into prison.
- Of all the women who are sent to prison, 37% say they have attempted suicide at some time in their life. 51% have severe and enduring mental illness, 47% a major depressive disorder, 6% psychosis and 3% schizophrenia.
- 83% of women in prison stated that they had long-standing illness, compared with 32% of the general female population. 73% were on medication on arrival at prison – mainly benzodiazepines (42%), methadone (36%), antidepressants (14%), and sleeping pills (10%).
- Women prisoners are subject to higher rates of disciplinary proceedings than men. According to the Ministry of Justice, “women may be less able (due for example to mental health issues) to conform to prison rules.”
Women prisoners, drugs and alcohol
- In 2010, 24% of women in prison were serving sentences for drug offences.
- Prior to imprisonment 85% of women were smokers, 75% had used illegal drugs and 40% drank alcohol in excess of the recommended limits.
- 52% of women surveyed said that they had used heroin, crack, or cocaine powder in the four weeks prior to custody. However, practitioners report that women may hide or underplay substance misuse through fear of losing their children.
Imprisoned mothers and their children
- It is estimated that more than 17,240 children were separated from their mother in 2010 by imprisonment.
- It is estimated that four out of 10 young women in prison are mothers.
- Only half of the women who had lived, or were in contact with, their children prior to imprisonment had received a visit since going to prison.
- Maintaining contact with children is made more difficult by the distance that many prisoners are held from their home area. This is particularly acute for women given the limited number of women’s prisons; in 2009 there were 753 women held over 100 miles from home.
- One Home Office study showed that for 85% of mothers, prison was the first time they had been separated from their children for any significant length of period. It also showed that 65% of mothers in prison were serving their first custodial sentence.
- 21 prisoners with dependent children took their own life in the 12 months to 31 August 2009 (men and women). Approximately 30% of prisoners who take their ownlives had no family contact prior to their deaths.
- A Prisons Inspectorate survey found that 38% of women in prison did not have accommodation arranged on release.
- Around one-third of women prisoners lose their homes, and often their possessions, whilst in prison.
Reconviction and reoffending
- 51% of women leaving prison are reconvicted within one year – for those serving sentences of less than 12 months this increases to 62%. For those women who have served more than 10previous custodial sentences the reoffending raterises to 88%.
- 58% of women identified unemployment and lack of skills as problems contributing to their offending.
Deaths in custody
In 2011 deaths in custody figures include the death of one woman. In March 2007, the Corston review of vulnerable women in the criminal justice system, commissioned following the deaths of six women at Styal prison, stated:
‘Community solutions for non-violent women offenders should be the norm’. The report concluded that “There must be a strong consistent message rightfrom the top of government, with full reasons given, in support of its stated policy that prison is not the right place for women offenders who pose no risk to the public”.
In 2010 a higher proportion of women than men completed their community sentence successfully or had their sentences terminated for good progress on both community orders (69%) and suspended sentence orders (74%) versus 65% on both orders for men.
Last updated: March 2012