Key facts

A round-up and latest key statistics regarding women affected by the criminal justice system.

Women are held in 12 prisons in England. There are no women’s prisons in Wales.  There is currently one women’s prison in Scotland, with some women held in units within men’s prisons.  In Northern Ireland women are held in a unit within a male Young Offenders Institution. 

Women’s prison population

  • Women make up around 5% of the overall prison population in the UK.

  • The number of women in prison in England and Wales stood at 4,035 on 17 November  2017. Although the women's prison population declined slighly over the last few years, in 2017 it once again exceeded 4,000.

  • A total of 8,447 women were sent to prison in 2016.

  • Women accounted for 10% of all prison receptions in 2016.

  • The women’s prison population in England and Wales more than doubled between 1995 and 2010, from 1,979 to 4,236.

  • Most of the rise in the female prison population can be explained by a significant increase in the severity of sentences. Between 2009 and 2013 the number of women sentenced for theft from a shop decreased by 4% whilst the number sentenced to custody increased by 17%.

  • The number of community sentences for women has fallen by nearly half in the last decade.


    Women prisoner backgrounds

  • 46% of women in prison report having suffered domestic violence.
    (We estimate that 80% of the women WIP works with have experienced domestic violence).

  • 53% of women in prison report having experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse during childhood.

  • 31% women in prison have spent time in local authority care as a child.


    Custodial sentences and previous convictions

  • 26% of all women in prison have no previous convictions.

  • Women serve prison sentences for minor offences; most women entering prison under sentence (84%) have committed a non-violent offence and theft offences accounted for nearly half (48%) of all custodial sentences given to women in 2016.

  • Most women entering prison serve short sentences. 70% of sentenced women entering prison in 2016 were serving six months or less.


    Women prisoners, mental health and self-harm 

  • Women account for a disproportionate amount of self-harm in prison; despite making up only 5% of the population women accounted for 21% of all incidents of self-harm in prison in the year to June 2016.

  • Women in custody are five times more likely to have a mental health concern than women in the general population.

  • 46% of women in prison report having attempted suicide at some point in their lifetime. This is twice the rate of men (21%) and more than seven times higher than the general population.


    Deaths in custody

  • There have been 100 deaths of women in prison since 2002.

  • There were 12 self-inflicted deaths in 2016.


    Women prisoners, drugs and alcohol

  • 48% of women have committed their offence in order to support the drug use of someone else.

  • 59% of women in prison who drank in the four weeks before custody thought they had a problem with alcohol.

  • 52% of women surveyed said that they had used heroin, crack, or cocaine 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

  • Only 9% of children whose mothers are in prison are cared for by their fathers in their mothers' absence.

  • At least a fifth of women prisoners are lone parents before imprisonment, compared to 9% of the general population.

  • Only half of the women who had lived with 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; their average distance from home is 66 miles.

  • 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 time.

  • Imprisoning mothers for non-violent offences has a damaging impact on children and carries a cost to the state of more than £17 million over a ten year period.


     On release

  • Around one-third of women prisoners lose their homes, and often their possessions, while in prison.

  • A Prisons Inspectorate survey found that 38% of women in prison did not have accommodation arranged on release.


    Reconviction and reoffending

    48% of women are reconvicted within one year of leaving prison. This rises to 61% for sentences of less than 12 months and to 78% for women who have served more than 11 previous custodial sentences.


     Community Solutions

    A report by NEF has found that for every £1 invested in support-focused alternatives to prison, £14 worth of social value is generated to women and their children, victims and society over ten years.   


     Women on remand

  • Women on remand make up 16% of the female prison population.

  • Women on remand spend an average of four to six weeks in prison.

  • Less than half of women remanded by magistrates’ courts and subsequently found guilty are given a prison sentence.


    Indeterminate sentences for Public Protection (IPP)

  • Despite its abolition in 2012, many women are still serving an IPP sentence, despite having passed their tariff expiry date.

  • Nearly 80% of IPP sentences for women were for offences of arson, which is often an indicator of serious mental illness or self-harm.


    Foreign national women

  • Foreign nationals make up 11% of the women’s prison population.

  • Some foreign national women in prison are known to have been coerced or trafficked into offending.



    For more information please see Prison Reform Trust’s Bromley Briefings