Women Need Support, Not Prison This International Women's Day

How about funding women's support centres instead?
The #StopThe500 campaign is opposed to adding more prison places to a 'completely failing system'
Aleksandr Zubkov via Getty Images
The #StopThe500 campaign is opposed to adding more prison places to a 'completely failing system'

Women in prison have spent up to 23 hours a day locked in their cells during the pandemic. Services are stretched and rates of self-harm are at record highs.

Yet the government is planning to put yet more women behind bars. In 2021, the Ministry of Justice announced plans to create 500 more women’s prison places, somewhat contradicting its own proposals to “steer women away from crime”.

In response, the national charity Women In Prison has launched #StopThe500, a petition calling for community investment and improvements in existing prisons, before “adding more places to a completely failing system”.

Prisons are a “dead end” for women, CEO Dr Kate Paradine tells HuffPost UK, and this International Women’s Day, it’s something we should all be talking about.

“We know that the root causes of women being swept up into crime are often domestic abuse, mental health, poverty, substance misuse and homelessness,” she says. “And these things tend to be made worse by a prison sentence.”

The majority (80%) of women are in prison for non-violent crimes, such as shoplifting. The vast majority could serve their sentences in the community, says Paradine, avoiding the harms caused by prison to themselves and their families.

Women are more likely to be primary carers than men and are also more likely to manage care responsibilities for elderly relatives. Their incarceration has knock-on effects for some of the most vulnerable in society – in 95% of cases where a mother goes to prison, her children end up leaving their own home, either going into care or to different relatives.

As there are only 12 women’s prisons in the UK, many women are incarcerated more than 60 miles away from home, making visits from children and other relatives difficult.

“The impact of prison is disproportionate to the crime,” says Paradine. “It causes a lot of harm, even though most women are there for six months or less. A few weeks in prison is enough to lose your home, your children, or any job that you have.”

Creating new prison spaces is expensive. When the government announced its plan, it said £150m would be used to create the new places. However, a recent report from the National Audit Office estimated the cost as closer to £200m.

Paradine points out that once the cost of running these extra prison places is added, the final bill will enter the billions (the average annual cost of a single women’s prison place in 2019-20 was £52,000).

In comparison, the government has pledged to spend just £2m to support community services that work with vulnerable women at-risk of prison.

Women in Prison is calling for funds to be redirected, to support women’s centres and other community services that help to prevent offending.

They’ve also raised concerns that the mental and physical health services available to existing women in prison are not fit for purpose.

Two reports published from the prisons and probation ombudsman in the past year have highlighted the poor treatment pregnant women receive in prison after two babies died.

The prison ombudsman confirmed that pregnancies in prison are high risk, which is why the charity is running a second campaign with the charities Birth Companions and Level Up, to stop the imprisonment of pregnant women.

Prison services are stretched and the pandemic only exacerbated issues and increased the disproportionate punishment in women’s prisons.

A report from the Women’s Reform Trust details how women faced no social visits, most education and workshops were shut, prisoners had no gym or access to the library, and had their sentence planning and progression on hold.

Paradine says she’s heard from women who were in their cells for 23 hours a day during the lockdowns, and the mental health impact can not be overestimated.

“All the the general kind of anxiety and stress in the general population is magnified when you’re in prison, and you don’t have access to the support networks that you would have usually from friends and family,” she says. “Rates of self-harm in prison at the moment are at record levels. It’s been devastating.”

HuffPost UK contacted the Ministry of Justice for a response to the #StopThe500 campaign. A spokesperson said:Custody should remain the last resort for most women but our new prison places will give them greater access to education, healthcare and employment. This is alongside better support for pregnant women with specialist mother and baby liaison officers being introduced across the estate.

“We are also investing tens of millions of pounds over the next three years into community services like women’s centres, drug rehabilitation and accommodation support so that fewer women end up in prison.”

Paradine is adamant that expanding prisons – before we’ve improved them – is not the answer.

“Building 500 new prison places is just digging failure deeper,” she says. “And it’s not in line with anything that the government has said it intends to do.”