Drugs and Women in Prison

Drugs and Women in Prison

Problem-solving courts

The current Lord Chancellor, Michael Gove has announced that a team has been set up to investigate how to establish problem-solving courts. In 2014, the Howard League published a report called, are problem-solving courts the way forward for justice? (Ward, 2014). This working paper provides a useful overview of the increase in the use of problem-solving courts. According to this approach, there is the belief in a therapeutic approach that involves offenders rather than leaving them out of the criminal justice process. The approach with problem solving courts is that people can be accountable for their actions and play an active role with their rehabilitation. According to this working paper the advantages of problem-solving courts include providing a model that empowers people, has well-being at its core and changes the delivery of justice (Ward, 2014). Michael Gove has apparently been examining how Texas have used a type of problem-solving court to cut prison numbers and send offenders on intensive courses to deal with drug abuse (Lefty, 2016). This alternative approach will be welcomed by many prison reformers, however it is important to consider that there could be a penalty of non-compliance and prisons will not be abolished using this system. Bearing these issues in mind, it is important to publicise the little known facts about drugs and women in prison.

International drugs war:

Globally there are 60% of women in prison for drug offences. The international drugs war means that many people are dealt with by the criminal justice system rather than being supported by other forms of service relating to their health, social issues and well-being. The treatment of women in prison varies greatly between different jurisdictions and there is clearly a need for alternatives to imprisonment. For example, in Brazil the criminal drug policies have not only been blamed for the increase of women in prison, but also within Brazil research has shown that women become victims of institutional violence (Arguello and Muraro, 2015). Support don't punish is a global advocacy campaign which calls for better drugs policies that prioritizes public health and human rights. This campaign is not for alternative ways of criminalizing drug users, but for nations to focus on health and harm reduction.

Women who are carers

While it will be useful to investigate alternative ways jurisdictions can deal with offenders within the court system there is international recognition that substance misuse intersects with other health issues. While international debates are recognising the possibilities of alternatives to custody, many women in prison are mothers or carers where it could be considered that their drug use damages others. This could have the consequence of women being treated more harshly or imprisonment not being reduced. For example according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, sanctions for drug use are justified where there is damage to others however, where there is no damage to others then this justifies treatment through healthcare and alternatives to imprisonment (UNODC, 2009).

Health of substance misusers

It is widely recognized that women experience greater stigma and discrimination. The current problem with services that are intended to reduce harm is that they are not tailored to the needs of women. In particular, there are many gaps in knowledge about the impacts of support systems and whether they are integrated with sexual, reproductive or other social support services. While it is known that drug taking can be linked to issues such as alcohol, mental health problems or communicable disease, very little is known about the intersections with issues that will be specific for women such as pregnant women, women who are carers for relatives or women who have been victims of abuse.


Research has shown that women in prison who are drugs users have not necessarily been convicted of a drug related crime. This is an important consideration for nations which are looking at alternative forms of justice such as the use of problem-solving courts. Not only should there be research and the implementation of alternative forms of court but the reality is that under this system prisons will continue to exist. This will mean taking into account that prisons will continue to need to do more about the availability of drugs and care for women who have health, social and welfare issues. For example research has discovered that drug use is often used to self-medicate against memories of abuse and if a woman stops misusing drugs without appropriate support then memories could re-appear (NOMS Women and Equalities Group, 2012). In particular a study found that whilst a woman gave up drugs during her pregnancy, she experienced a miscarriage in HMP Holloway and following this experience she returned to drugs again (Wincup, 1997).

Impact of prisons

Despite assessments and the delivery of a range of treatment there are differences between prisons with the support women are likely to receive. For example the prison inspection report at HMP Peterborough (2011) noted that whilst a needs analysis identified pregnant women on drugs, the subsequent drugs strategy did not include how this need was addressed by the prison. The consequences of a model such as the problem-solving courts are not known especially in relation to women who are likely to have complex and intersecting issues that are not related to their offence. The working paper suggested that problem-solving courts could potentially be more costly than the current criminal court approaches. Women involved with the criminal justice system are in a minority and this is reflected by the many gaps in knowledge about women. Not only is more research needed relating to specific issues which affect women but also politicians, policy-makers and academics will need to debate more widely whether models such as the problem-solving court will reduce the numbers of women in prison.

For more about women in prison, including an agenda for 2016 go to research for women in prison.


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