Women

Women in prison have revealed the devastating impact of Covid-19 restrictions on their mental health and wellbeing, in a briefing launched today by the Prison Reform Trust.

Based on evidence from women in prison from May 2020 to May 2021, as well as supporting evidence from HM Inspectorate of Prisons and other sources, the briefing looks at women’s experiences of prison during the first and second waves of the pandemic.

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Most women are sent to prison for non-violent offences and serve sentences of 12 months or less, a new briefing by the Prison Reform Trust reveals. 72% of women who entered prison under sentence in 2020 have committed a non-violent offence. Furthermore, 70% of prison sentences given to women were for less than 12 months.

A series of inquiries and reports over the last 20 years, as well as the government’s own ‘female offender strategy’, have all concluded that prison is rarely a necessary, appropriate or proportionate response to women who get caught up in the criminal justice system. Despite this, the government has recently announced plans to build an additional 500 prison places in the women’s estate. This is in direct contradiction to a key commitment of the female offender strategy to reduce the female prison population.

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An analysis of the government’s Female Offender Strategy published today by the Prison Reform Trust shows the government has fully implemented only 31 of 65 commitments. The majority of the promises made in the strategy remain unachieved or partially achieved nearly three years after the strategy was published in June 2018.

The recent announcement of 500 new prison places in the women’s estate reverses a key aim of the strategy to reduce the women’s prison population. New places would not be needed if the strategy had been implemented successfully.

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Commenting on today’s (23 January) funding announcement by the Ministry of Justice, Emily Evison, policy officer at the Prison Reform Trust, said:

“Reducing the women’s prison population is a central plank of the government’s female offenders strategy. Even a temporary rise in women’s prison numbers will be a mark of failure. Instead of planning for a rise, the government should redouble its efforts to ensure women are not being sent to prison to serve pointless short sentences. The national concordat provides a welcome framework for cross-government working to improve outcomes for women. However, it will need backing by action on the ground to ensure the effective coordination of services. The additional funding is welcome as far as it goes but doesn’t end the need for more sustainable funding of women’s services in the long term.”

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An analysis of local court data published today by the Prison Reform Trust has found a significant north-south divide in rates of women’s imprisonment in England and Wales.

The latest figures for 2019 continue to reveal a postcode lottery in women’s imprisonment rates, with women in the north of England, the Midlands and parts of Wales far more likely to end up behind bars than those in the south of England. For instance, women in South Wales are nearly seven times more likely to be imprisoned than women in Surrey.

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Commenting on the findings of today's report, The Case for Sustainable Funding for Women’s Centres, published by the Women’s Budget Group in collaboration with Women in Prison, Nelson Trust, Together Women, Anawim and Brighton Women’s Centre, Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust said:

"For some time there has been broad agreement on the right policy solutions for women at risk of needless imprisonment. The government itself has signed up to a strategy that describes most of what needs to be done. But it hasn’t turned words into reality. This detailed and immensely practical report removes any last excuse for not doing so. At a time when the money available to build new prisons and employ more prison staff to run them appears to be without limit, this report doesn’t just make the case for a very modest investment in women’s centres, it describes in detail how to go about it. But time is short—if the government dithers, the organisations it needs to deliver the change it wants may no longer exist."

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A new report from the Safe Homes for Women Leaving Prison initiative exposes a failing system that leaves thousands of women released from UK prisons with just £46, a plastic bag, nowhere to live and the threat of a return to custody if they miss their probation appointment.

The initiative is a unique collaboration of London Prisons Mission, Prison Reform Trust, the Church of St Martins in the Fields and HMP & YOI Bronzefield. It is calling for urgent action by actors across the criminal justice system to combat failings that result in 6 in 10 women released from prison, many of them suffering from multiple vulnerabilities, without access to safe and secure housing.

The Bishop of Gloucester & Anglican Bishop for HM Prisons, The Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, has written to the Secretary of State for Justice, Robert Buckland and the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Robert Jenrick to share the findings of the report and to encourage efforts to improve accommodation support for women leaving prison. You can read a copy of the letter by clicking here

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Since 2015, the Prison Reform Trust’s Transforming Lives programme has aimed to reduce women’s imprisonment across the UK. During that time the programme has engaged with over 150 women with lived experience of the criminal justice system. As we prepare to draw the programme to a close this autumn, research by the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen), published today, gives an insight into how women were involved, and the perceived impact of their contribution.

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The government has announced improvements to care for pregnant women and mothers in prison, in response to a review by the Ministry of Justice, after long running criticism of the poor care that pregnant women receive in prison, and the recent deaths of two babies during childbirth in prison.

Our own research, 'What about me?' highlights the impact of separation on children when mothers are imprisoned, and found that their needs and best interests are rarely considered by the justice system.

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Commenting on the findings of today’s report by HM Inspectorate of Prisons on women’s prisons during the Covid-19 period, Katy Swaine Williams, Senior Programme Manager for reducing women's imprisonment at the Prison Reform Trust said:

“This distressing report bears witness to a ‘failure of national planning’ by the government in its response to the threat of the pandemic in prisons, as well as the impact of cumulative failures to deliver on its Female Offender Strategy. Hardly any women have been released from these prisons under the government’s temporary release scheme, despite the fact that most women are imprisoned or remanded for minor non-violent offences. The suspension of family visits and delays in rolling out virtual visits are no doubt contributing to the increased levels of self- harm among the women in the prisons inspected.”

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PRT comment: Hidden Harms Summit

21/05/2020 15:50:00

Commenting on today’s announcement by the government ahead of the Hidden Harms Summit, Katy Swaine Williams, Senior Programme Manager at the Prison Reform Trust said:

“We welcome the Hidden Harms initiative and the Prime Minister’s commitment to ‘support the most vulnerable and keep them safe from harm and exploitation’.

“Official figures show that nearly 60% of women in prison are victims/survivors of domestic abuse and this is likely to be an underestimate. Far from helping them, the state often compounds their victimisation. Many have been driven to offend by their experience of abuse. Yet while victims of trafficking rightly have a statutory defence where they are compelled to offend, there is no such legal protection for domestic abuse survivors. The government should use the Domestic Abuse Bill to modernise the law by providing equivalent legal defences.”

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Commenting on the announcement today by the Ministry of Justice, Jenny Earle Women’s Programme Director for Prison Reform Trust said:

“Whilst any additional funding to divert vulnerable women from the criminal justice system is welcome, £2.5m for women’s support services will have to be very thinly spread if it is to include establishing a residential women’s centre in Wales. The government needs to confirm adequate sustainable funding for struggling women’s services, now more critical than ever to ensuring hard-pressed police, courts and prisons have somewhere safe and effective to refer women for help in turning their lives around.”

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The reintroduction today of the Domestic Abuse Bill presents an opportunity to strengthen legal protection for those whose offending is driven by their experience of domestic abuse. This would address a gap in legal protection for survivors, strengthen recognition of the links between victimisation and offending and deter inappropriate prosecutions.

Commenting, Katy Swaine Williams, Senior Programme Manager at the Prison Reform Trust said:

"The majority of women in prison are survivors of domestic abuse and many have been driven to offend as a direct result of that abuse. This landmark Bill presents an opportunity to protect survivors of abuse from prosecution where they have been driven to offend. With support from legal and domestic abuse experts, including the Victims' Commissioner, the Domestic Abuse Commissioner and the Criminal Bar Association, we will be making the case for this essential legal protection to be added to the Bill."

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Penal Reform International (PRI), in partnership with the Prison Reform Trust (PRT), has published a guide for prison and probation staff to help them understand how prison life can affect a person’s mental health, with a focus on women. The guide aims to break down the stigma and discrimination attached to poor mental health, especially for women in prison.

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A new briefing, Working It Out, published today by the Prison Reform Trust and Working Chance, reveals that fewer than one in 20 women (4%) were in employment six weeks after release from prison, compared with over one in 10 men (11%).

The briefing found that despite government recognition that employment for those who have been in trouble with the law is critical for reducing reoffending, too many women with a criminal conviction experience barriers to employment and do not receive adequate support. Enabling women to achieve financial independence is especially important for those whose offending is driven by abusive and coercive relationships.

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Jane Hutt AM, Deputy Minister for the Welsh Government, will set out plans today (10 October) on working in partnership to reduce the number of women in Wales in prison.

The Cardiff summit, jointly hosted by Prison Reform Trust, Clinks, Community Justice Cymru and the Welsh Government, will bring together ministers, government officials, organisations supporting women in the justice system and women with lived experience, to support the delivery of the Female Offending Blueprint, published by the Welsh Government earlier this year.

The event is being delivered as part of the Prison Reform Trust’s UK wide Transforming Lives programme to reduce women's imprisonment, and to encourage implementation and investment in better responses to reducing crime committed by women.

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Photo credit: Welsh Government

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Commenting on the publication of the Joint Committee on Human Rights report Right to Family Life: Children whose mothers are in prison, Jenny Earle, programme director of the PRT Transforming Lives programme to reduce women’s imprisonment said:

“Today’s report recognises that women overwhelmingly commit non-violent offences, spend short spells behind bars, and are more likely to be the primary carer of their children. Ensuring that children’s welfare is more consistently and effectively factored into sentencing decisions, requires changes to both law and practice. This means that women have the opportunity and the confidence to disclose if they have children, and a prohibition on custodial sentencing without a pre-sentence report. The government must act on the recommendations of this expert cross-party parliamentary committee, and break the cycle of intergenerational crime once and for all.”

You can download a copy of our evidence to the JCHR inquiry by clicking here.

You can download a copy of our report on maternal imprisonment, 'What about me?', by clicking here.

Click read more to see our Head of Prisoner Engagement, Paula Harriott speaking to Channel 5 News about maternal imprisonment.

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A year after the publication of the government’s Female Offender Strategy, the Prison Reform Trust, in partnership with NHS England and NHS Improvement and the Centre for Mental Health, are bringing together allied organisations to support the delivery of better outcomes for women in trouble with the law.

The event, held at The Supreme Court today (4 September), will host a keynote speech from Lucy Frazer QC MP, Minister of State for Prisons and Probation, and bring together practitioners, politicians and policy makers from health, social care and criminal justice fields, alongside women with lived experience of the justice system. London’s Deputy Mayor for Policing and Crime, Sophie Linden, will also address the event.

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Photo credit: UK Parliament, licenced under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported (CC BY 3.0) 

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PRT comment: HMP Eastwood Park

28/08/2019 00:01:00

Commenting on the findings of the HM Inspectorate of Prisons report on HMP Eastwood Park, Dr Jenny Earle, Prison Reform Trust lead for reducing women’s imprisonment said:

“The cause of at least some of Eastwood Park prison’s failings lie outside its walls in the lack of housing and mental health support for women in the community. It is shocking that inspectors found that more than two in five women were being released homeless—only increasing the likelihood that they will return back to custody. Over a year on since the publication of the government’s Female Offender Strategy, this report suggests that progress in key areas remains disappointingly slow. Women are still too often being set up to fail.”

Photo credit: Andy Aitchison

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There were more than 140,000 admissions into prison in England and Wales in 2017—the highest number in western Europe, according to a new report published today (24 June 2019) by the Prison Reform Trust.

The report Prison: the facts, reveals that, despite the number falling in recent years, England and Wales still have over 40,000 more admissions to prison than Germany, the second-highest—which has a significantly larger national population.

The rate of prison admissions, which accounts for the effects of differences in national populations, shows that England and Wales have a rate approximately three times that of Italy and Spain, and almost twice as high as Germany, with 238 prison admissions for every 100,000 people.

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Photo credit: Andy Aitchison

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Commenting on the publication of the final report from The Farmer Review for Women today (18 June 2019), Jenny Earle, Prison Reform Trust’s Transforming Lives Programme Director said:

“Lord Farmer’s report makes many practical, and measurable, proposals that if implemented will reduce the number of children unnecessarily separated from their mother by her imprisonment. The review’s focus on increasing the role of community based women’s services, recognises that many women in prison are there for non-violent crimes. It allows women to take responsibility for their actions, whilst minimising the trauma, stigma and social isolation faced by children when a parent is imprisoned. Our own research found that the views and best interests of children are rarely considered by the criminal justice system and that they face many barriers to getting support. The message couldn’t be clearer, what’s needed now is speedy implementation. Doing so will benefit women, children and society.”

Photo credit: Andy Aitchison

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The report published today (14 June 2019) by the Joint Committee on the Draft Domestic Abuse Bill recommends that the government should consider the proposal made by the Prison Reform Trust and Criminal Bar Association for a statutory defence to be introduced to protect those whose offending is driven by domestic abuse.

Commenting, Dr Jenny Earle, Transforming Lives Programme Director at the Prison Reform Trust, said:

“We are delighted with this important recommendation by the joint committee. Well over half of women in prison report that they are victims of domestic abuse and the true figure is likely to be much higher. The government has acknowledged the mounting evidence of domestic abuse as an underlying factor in many women’s offending, yet the law provides no effective defence for those facing prosecution in these circumstances. The government should seize this opportunity to strengthen protection and deter prosecution of women who may have been victims of more serious offences than those for which they are commonly imprisoned.”

For more information, see the Prison Reform Trust’s report "There’s a reason we’re in trouble": Domestic Abuse as a Driver to Women’s Offending.

Photo credit: Andy Aitchison

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Women with learning disabilities are at risk of becoming drawn into the criminal justice system due to failures to recognise their disability and a lack of appropriate support, according to a new report published today by the Prison Reform Trust, produced in collaboration with KeyRing Living Support Networks.

The report, Out of the Shadows, draws on the experiences of 24 women with learning disabilities in contact with, or on the edges of, the criminal justice system; and practitioners working within criminal justice, social care, and women’s services. Abuse by men lay behind the offending behaviour of most of the participating women.

The report gives a voice to women with learning disabilities, enabling them to talk about their experiences. This includes not understanding the implications of their behaviour and failure to comply with imposed sanctions; their histories as victims of violent and abusive behaviour; and enforced separation from their children, bewilderment and a sense of injustice.

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Photo credit: Polly Braden

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A new analysis of court data published today by the Prison Reform Trust has found significant variations in imprisonment rates for women between police force areas in England and Wales.

The average imprisonment rate for women in England is 30 per 100,000, and in Wales 48 per 100,000.

Cleveland has the highest imprisonment rate in England and Wales at 67 women per 100,000 head of population. Between 2012 and 2017 this region saw an increase of 22% in the use of immediate imprisonment for women.

By contrast, Greater Manchester, where there is a co-ordinated strategy involving the local authority, police diversion, a problem solving court and women’s support services, has an imprisonment rate of 25 women per 100,000 head of population. Between 2012 and 2017 it saw a decrease of 33% in the use of immediate imprisonment for women.

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Photo credit: Andy Aitchison

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Earlier this month the UN Committee on Women (CEDAW) published its latest report on progress in achieving women’s equality in the UK.  The UN Committee welcomed the UK Government’s “first female offender strategy in June 2018 to divert the most vulnerable women in the criminal justice system away from custody through the provision of tailored support in England and Wales.” However, reflecting concerns expressed by Prison Reform Trust and others, the Committee recommended that the UK government allocate sufficient resources to effectively implement the Female Offender Strategy; continue to develop alternative sentencing and custodial strategies, including community interventions and services, for women convicted of minor offences; and take further measures to improve the provision of mental health care in all prisons, taking into account the particular needs of women.

Welcoming the United Nations CEDAW Committee’s conclusions, PRT Transforming Lives programme director Dr Jenny Earle said:

“The government has recognised in its strategy that most of the solutions to women’s offending lie in the community, but so far has failed to adequately fund the women’s services that are key to delivering these.  Now an influential international body has added its voice to the growing clamour for more realistic funding. The time has come for the government to deliver on its commitments, and invest in those services it says it supports.”

Photo credit: Andy Aitchison

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