30/12/2015 18:03 GMT | Updated 30/12/2016 05:12 GMT

New Year but Is This Really a New Era for Women in Prison?

New Year:

With issues relating to women in prison, the beginning of 2016 means asking some questions about what is happening in England and Wales.


Nick Hardwick is due to have a replacement for his role as Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons in 2016. Nick Hardwick will be remembered by many involved with prison reform in England and Wales as a spokesman for the conditions of women in prison. In a critical lecture during 2012, Nick Hardwick explained that the terrible levels of self-mutilation and despair by women in prison kept him awake at night. According to Nick Hardwick, in a lecture on the University of Sussex campus in February 2012, the blame was not with officers, staff or governors but with successive governments and parliament. In his last Annual Report (2014-15) Nick Hardwick explained that across all of the prison estate in England and Wales there are inconsistencies. In particular, this report highlights that while women are less than 5% of the prison population, 26% of women self-harm in prison.

Over the past few years it has been widely publicised that imprisonment for women should be the last resort and the criminal justice system is not the place to support women who have complex health, social and welfare needs. What will the New Year, new inspector and new era for women in prison mean?

New inspector:

The justice select committee have announced their preferred candidates for the position of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons and Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Probation. The candidates are Peter who is a retired senior police officer and a member of the Board of the Charity Commission. Glenys is a solicitor by profession, has served as a magistrate and the Criminal Cases Review Commission. An announcement is expected during the first half of 2016.

New era for women in prison?

The most curious question that will need to be reviewed by all concerned relates to changes within the female prison estate. While there are many organisations involved with campaigning, consultations and research relating to the reform of the female prison estate; very few organisations can afford to spend all of their time or resources scrutinising government policy or strategies that relate to women in prison. This blog throughout 2016 will focus on issues that will support researchers or practitioners about women in prison. The intention will be to compliment the work of organisations which work with women in prison and are providing important services within prisons.

The closure of HMP Holloway, has left a puzzled response from many campaigners. HMP Holloway has been the flagship female prison in England and Wales. It is the status of HMP Holloway that has led to reports which are calling for the long term reduction of women in prison as well as being concerned about the conditions for women in prison who are self-harming. Nick Hardwick in his speech in 2012 warned that the reduction of women in prison could lead to the closure of specialist facilities and workers within prison. The problem with this is that to campaign for better facilities for women in prison, sounds as if you agree that the current criminal justice system is right.

While many have reported about HMP Holloway, there have been very few reports and no scrutiny about HMP Downview. The new era for women in prison that was announced in November 2015 was not what it seemed. In fact, HMP Downview closed its doors in December 2013 as a female prison. HMP Downview shares a site with a male local prison called HMP High Down. While there have been no recorded prisoners at HMP Downview since 2013, it is likely that this space was used by male prisoners but not statistically recorded. Less than three years since its closure, HMP Downview will be open again. Its population will be approximately 380 prisoners. Given that HMP Holloway will close its doors and has a population of about 500 prisoners, the aggregate is a reduction of about 120 prisoners. In fact the female prison estate will not just have had a reduction in numbers. The reduction of female imprisonment is not just a numbers game because prisons such as HMP Holloway had many specialist workers, services and support networks. The problem remains that while there has been a loss of specialist support and a chief inspector that recognised these issues, what does the future look like? The future will be to campaign for specialist support for women in prison and at the same time argue that the criminal justice system is not working and many women should not be in prison. For more about these issues please keep in touch at research for women in prison.