UK failing women in prison

A new report has highlighted that “self-harm rates remain shockingly high across the female prison estate and reoffending rates are staggering, especially for women receiving short custodial sentences. A change in attitude is needed in how women are dealt with in the criminal justice system. Diverting women away from custodial settings and investing in those women who do need to be held in prison is vital if the UK government wishes to be seen as living up to international standards of human rights.”

The report, State of the Estate 2011-12, was produced by the organisation Women in Prison. It considers how the UK has implemented, or not, the Bangkok Rules, which are the United Nations Rules on the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-Custodial Measures for Women Offenders. They were adopted unanimously by the UN General Assembly in December 2010.

2012 Swarthmore Lecturer Rachel Brett gave an address at the launch of the report. Rachel, whose lecture on Quaker work at the United Nations was delivered at Britain Yearly Meeting in 05/2012, is based at the Quaker United Nations Office in Geneva.

“The rules were developed because of the international recognition that women prisoners are different from men prisoners,” explained Rachel Brett. “The small (though increasing) numbers of women prisoners – about 5% of the prison population in the UK which is about the norm globally – mean that there are fewer women’s prisoners. Consequently, women will be held further from their homes making maintaining family contact and visits more difficult, but also that women tend to be over-classified, that is held in more restrictive conditions than actually required by their individual risk assessment. The substantive differences between male and female prisoners are:

  • women are rarely serious violent offenders
  • women prisoners have very high levels of prior physical and sexual abuse
  • women prisoners have very high levels of drug and/or alcohol addiction and of mental health problems
  • most women prisoners are the sole or primary carer of minor children

These factors, both individually and in combination mean that male and female prison populations are very different. Women are affected differently by prison than are male prisoners, for example strip searching can in fact re-traumatise a woman who has suffered sexual abuse.”

“Women in Prison’s State of the Estate 2011-2012 report is excellent,” said Rachel Brett, “in that it sets a baseline against which policy and practice can be measured over time. It takes the Bangkok Rules as the standards and sets out the relevant government policies and then the extent of implementation. The UK has expressed its commitment to the Bangkok Rules not only through its support for their adoption at the UN General Assembly, but in September 2012 it accepted a recommendation during the Universal Periodic Review process of the UN Human Rights Council from Thailand that it should incorporate them, while interpreting ‘’incorporating’ as meaning policy’’ (rather than law).”

In 2007 a report by Jean Corston looking at vulnerable women in the criminal justice system was published by the Home Office. Jean Corston recognised “the need for a distinct radically different, visibly-led, strategic, proportionate, holistic, woman-centred, integrated approach”.

Last year, Chief Inspector of Prisons Nick Hardwick gave a lecture on the fifth anniversary of the publication of the Corston report. He said then: “I think the treatment and conditions in which small minorities of the most disturbed women are held is simply unacceptable. I think, I hope, we will look back in how we treated these women in years to come, aghast and ashamed.” He added: “Prisons are simply the wrong place for so many of the distressed and disturbed women they hold.”

The Bangkok Rules were at least in part instigated by Quaker United Nations Office through their work on women prisoners and specifically the Commentary on the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.

You can read the full report at

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