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From The Socialist newspaper, 29 August 2012

Women's prisons - Con-Dems' 'reforms' mean cuts and privatisation

The Prison Reform Trust has said that prisons in England and Wales are over capacity by 7,300 inmates. This overcrowding, says the trust, is limiting prison staff's efforts to reduce reoffending.

A women's prison health worker comments.

England and Wales has the highest rate of imprisonment in Europe. The prison population has doubled since 1993, from 40,000 to over 80,000. During this time the male population of prisoners rose by 52% and the female population by 196%. However, women still account for only 6% of total prisoners.

The increased prison population is largely a result of harsher sentencing, not increased offending. In 1995, 129 people were in prison for shoplifting; in 2005, it was 1,400. In 2001, 3,000 people were sent to prison for petty theft as a first time offence.

33% of women prisoners are there because of theft. Women prisoners are likely to have no qualifications and be unemployed at the point of their arrest.

A lack of safe bail hostels for women has increased their time spent in prison. Women are also more likely to receive a custodial sentence for less serious offences.

Two-thirds of women in prison are mothers. Only 5% of children whose mother is in prison will remain in the family home. Women who are pregnant while in prison are more likely to be physically attacked by other prisoners.

Around 20,000 cases of self harm by prisoners are reported each year - 50% are by women, 25% of which are by women aged 18-20. Women also account for 15% of suicides in prison.

50% of women in prisons are survivors of domestic violence. Conditions associated with domestic violence include post traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, suicide attempts, alcohol and drug abuse and worsening of psychotic symptoms. Childhood abuse survivors are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol as well as self harm. The most common reason women are imprisoned for drug offences.

Styal prison

In 2007 the Corston report was published following six deaths at Styal women's prison in Cheshire. It recommended that all the women's prisons in England and Wales be shut down and replaced with smaller units closer to women's homes and only be for women who were of risk to the public.

In February, Clive Chatterton, former governor of Styal, ended a 37-year career with a letter to Ken Clarke, justice secretary, calling for the immediate reform of women's prisons.

Chatterton, who was at Styal for three years, said that 50% of the women he saw should not have been sent to prison.

Chatterton's examples included one woman jailed for 12 days for stealing a 3 sandwich. One woman, convicted of shoplifting, lived in a forest where she scavenged food to survive. Another took a 12 bottle of champagne and spent her ten-day sentence ill in hospital guarded by two prison officers.

'For your own good'

But women are still being sent to prison for petty crimes. Judges are sending women to prison for their 'own good', feeling that they would not be given the right amount of care if they remained in the community.

And instead of worthwhile reform, prisons are being privatised. The needs of the prisoners, staff and public will be put below companies' need to make profit. In 2009 it was revealed that there are twice as many complaints from prisoners in private prisons. 40% of private prisons received the second lowest inspection grade inspection; none received the top grade.

Most women prisoners are themselves victims of poverty, domestic violence, sexual abuse, drug and alcohol abuse, or mental health problems. The Con-Dem cuts will only worsen all of these.

"For nine months she had been in a cell with no sheets in case she used the linen to hang herself, no books, no TV, no radio, because she would use any item to kill herself. The walls were spattered with blood where she had stood and banged her head repeatedly to try and commit suicide.

"She'd been failed by the education system, the health system and in her mind she had no option but to die. Her parents had visited her just once because she was so far away. She clearly needed to be in hospital, but there were no available beds. In nine months there had been no psychiatric assessment."

A Styal prison worker's description of a young woman on remand

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In The Socialist 29 August 2012:

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