Still Dying On The Inside: The Case For Ending Imprisonment Of Women

Prisons are evidently ill-equipped to respond to the complex needs of women - while ministers drag their feet, women continue to die
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This month marks ten years since the death of Pauline Campbell. Pauline became a formidable campaigner exposing the harm inflicted on women within the prison system. This followed the death of her 18-year-old daughter in Styal prison in 2003.

It was campaigning by Pauline Campbell, bereaved families and Inquest around the sharp rise in deaths across the women’s estate, and in particular deaths at Styal in the early 2000s, that persuaded the then Labour government to commission Baroness Jean Corston to conduct an independent review of women in the criminal justice system.  

Corston’s ground-breaking report, published in March 2007, offered a blueprint for change. The review recommended the dismantling of the women’s prison estate, the introduction of small custodial units and an expansion of gender-specific support in the community, through a network of women’s centres. It was expected that the use of imprisonment for women could be reduced to an ‘absolute minimum’ and was hoped that women’s imprisonment could be almost entirely phased out. At the time there was great optimism that positive change was imminent. 

Eleven years after Corston, and ten years after Pauline Campbell’s death, and the situation has never felt so desperate. The casework team at Inquest continue to support families whose daughters, sisters, mothers, aunts and grandmothers have died. Ninety-four women have died in women’s prisons since March 2007. Of these, 38 were self-inflicted, 48 were non-self-inflicted and eight await classification. 32 were by hanging.

Inquest’s latest report, Still Dying on the Inside shares the stories of some of the women who have died in prison and calls for urgent action to save lives. Our research identifies serious safety failures inside prisons around self-harm and suicide management and inadequate healthcare provision. The report also highlights the lack of action on recommendations arising from post-death investigations and inquests.

Emily Hartley, aged 21, was the youngest of 22 women to die in prison in 2016. Emily was imprisoned for arson, having set fire to herself, her bed and curtains. She had a history of serious mental ill-health including self-harm, suicide attempts and drug addiction. This was Emily’s first time in prison. A prison that could not keep her safe. A sentence that cost her life.

On 1 February 2018 the inquest investigating Emily’s self-inflicted death concluded with deeply critical findings about her care and the failure to transfer her to a therapeutic setting. What made her premature and preventable death all the more shocking is that ten years to the day of Emily’s inquest, the same coroner had dealt with a strikingly similar death, that of Petra Blanksby

Nineteen-year-old Petra was imprisoned for an arson offence, having set fire to her bedroom in an attempt to take her own life. Petra too, had a history of mental ill health and suicide attempts. Two women, ten years apart, criminalised for being mentally unwell. At the end of Petra’s inquest in 2008, the coroner recommended to the Prison Service and Department of Health they should deal with the lack of secure therapeutic facilities outside prison. At the conclusion of Emily’s inquest, the same coroner David Hinchcliffe repeated this recommendation, demanding “the provision of suitable, secure, therapeutic environments in order to treat those with mental health problems”.

Prisons are evidently ill-equipped to respond to the complex needs of many women sentenced to custody. Many women in the criminal justice system have personal experiences of trauma, abuse and domestic violence. More than half (53%) of women in prison report having experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse as a child compared to 27% of men. Law-breaking by women differs markedly from that by men. It is less frequent, and less serious. Women bear the brunt of social, health and economic inequalities; reflected in the fact that 87% of women sentenced to prison are there for non-violent offences, with 40% imprisoned for theft.

Time and again inquests reveal that a prison sentence imposed by the courts was an inappropriate response to women already facing a range of social, health and economic inequalities. The persistence and repetition of the same issues reveals nothing less than a glaring failure of government to act. While ministers continue to drag their heels on the women’s justice strategy, which was due in 2017, women continue to die.

Inquest’s work has led us to the conclusion that prison should be abolished as a response to women who break the law, save for a wholly unrepresentative micro-minority of women, who even then need a new form of intensive intervention.

Women in the criminal justice system do not need another inquiry or report or more research. Government must work across health, social care and justice departments to dismantle failing women’s prisons and invest in specialist women’s services.

I will leave the last word to Pauline who said this at her last protest before her death: “My message to ministers is: stop the rhetoric and get on with the action. Stop the shilly-shallying and show some moral leadership for once. Implement the Corston recommendations.” 

Deborah Coles is the director of Inquest