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The number of women in prison in England and Wales has exceeded 4,000 for the first time in four-and-a-half years. Ministry of Justice figures released today show the female prison population currently stands at 4,007.

The latest edition of Prison: the facts (Bromley briefings summer 2017), published this month and covered exclusively on BBC Radio Four Woman’s Hour, shows an increase of 200 women in prison in the past year has pushed the female prison population past this significant watershed after years of gradual but sustained decline in the numbers of women behind bars. The briefing highlights facts and figures which show the beleaguered state of our overcrowded prison system and the men and women in its care.

Some of the complex factors which may lie behind the growth in the women's prison population include a decline in the use of community orders, an increase in the use of suspended sentence orders, an increase in the number of women held on remand, an increase in the number of women sentenced to custody, and a rise in the number of women recalled to custody.

The female prison population peaked at nearly 4,500 in 2005. Since then, it fell gradually to reach a low of 3,800 in June 2016. However, during the last 12 months there has been a sudden and unexpected rise. The last time the number of women in prison was at 4,000 was four-and-a-half years ago in December 2012.

In February 2017, the Prison Reform Trust warned that the number of women in prison was in danger of rising as new threats place further pressure on a prison system already under unprecedented strain. Factors which have contributed to the rising trend, highlighted in the Bromley briefing prison factfile, include:

  • A decline in the use of community sentences for women. The number of community sentences for women has fallen by nearly half (44%) in the last decade, from 29,392 in 2006 to 16,590 in 2016.
  • An increase in the use of suspended sentences. Suspended sentences for women have increased by 84% in the past 10 years, from 4,516 in 2006 to 8,325 in 2016.
  • An increase in the number of women held on remand. The number of women in prison on remand increased by 9% in the 12 months to March 2017.
  • An increase in the number of women serving custodial sentences. Overall, the number of women in prison serving a custodial sentence increased by 3% in the 12 months to March 2017. The greatest increase was seen in women serving sentences of greater than 6 months to less than 12 months (a 34% rise) and women serving sentences of 4 years to less than 5 years (a 14% rise).
  • An increase in the number of women recalled to custody. The number of women recalled to custody has increased by 27% in the two years since the year-long mandatory supervision of short sentenced prisoners was introduced in February 2015, under the provisions of the Offender Rehabilitation Act 2014. Recalled prisoners currently make up around 7% of the total female prison population.

A series of inquiries and reports over the last 20 years have all concluded that prison is rarely a necessary, appropriate or proportionate response to women who get caught up in the criminal justice system. Furthermore, women, who make up some 5% of the total prison population, are easily overlooked in policy, planning, and investment in the services that help them to take responsibility and turn their lives around.

In the 10th anniversary year of Baroness Corston's Report on women in the justice system, the shocking rise in the number of self-inflicted deaths of both men and women in the past year should serves as a warning to the new government against complacency. Twelve women took their own lives in 2016, a level last seen just before Corston’s review.

In its election manifesto, the Conservative party committed to establishing a national community sentencing framework and introducing dedicated provision for women offenders. However, plans to legislate for prison reform were omitted from the Queen's speech last week.

Before the election was called, the previous government had promised to publish a strategy for women offenders. It was also conducting a review of probation following concerns raised by HM inspectorates of prisons and probation and the National Audit Office regarding the impact of reforms to the service, including the arrangements for the statutory supervision of short sentenced prisoners, under the Transforming Rehabilitation programme. A damning report by the HM inspectorates of prisons and probation on through the gate provision for prisoners serving sentences of greater than 12 months was published on Tuesday.

Commenting, Peter Dawson, Director of the Prison Reform Trust, said:

“Progress on creating a more effective and humane system for the small minority of women who offend has been painfully slow for years. But now it seems to have ground to a halt altogether. This alarming rise in the number of women needlessly behind bars highlights the urgent need for the new government to turn fine words into action. The evidence highlighted in our briefing could not be clearer—good community provision works better than prison, costs less, and keeps families together. We need investment in a national network of women’s centres, not new prisons.”