Parliamentary Committees and Public Enquiries
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Slow progress in improving support for women in prison

The Justice Committee has warned that limited progress has been made in developing alternatives to custodial sentences for women amid concerns that the female prison population may rise by a third in the next three years. In a report published yesterday, the Committee finds that more needs to be done to address the addiction, mental health and trauma issues facing women who enter the prison system.

The report calls on the Government to ensure that strategies developed to combat problems in the system are adequately funded, rolled out efficiently and monitored for performance to create meaningful change.

The report also calls for a renewed focus on the specific challenges facing women who enter the prison system. This includes the impact it has on women who are primary carers and what more can be done to ensure that vital family relationships are maintained.

Chair of the Justice Committee, Sir Bob Neill MP said:

“It is welcome that the Government has understood that there are specific challenges around sending women to prison that need to be addressed, but it is disappointing that there is yet to be significant tangible change.

“The 2018 Female Offender Strategy marked an important step in recognising the needs of women in the criminal justice system, but more needs to be done to understand whether it is targeting the right areas and having a meaningful impact. Women entering the prison system often have challenging needs and they must be supported from the day they arrive to the day they leave and beyond.”

Fewer women in prison

A key objective of the Government’s Female Offender strategy is to have fewer women in prison. Overall numbers have fallen, from 3,958 in February 2017 to 3,219, in July 2022, however the Ministry of Justice now predicts that it will increase by a third over the next three years.

In the strategy, the Government has indicated it intends to improve Out of Court Disposals as an alternative to custodial sentences, however there is yet to be any clear evidence that more women are being diverted away from custody through this route.

The Government should set out what funding it plans to put in place to support the development of women-specific pathways to support alternatives to prison sentences. It should also set out a timeframe for when it expects these services to be in operation.

Dealing with self-harm

Over the past decade there has been an alarming increase in the level of self-harm in the female prison estate. The Committee welcomes that the Ministry of Justice and the Prisons Service has identified this as a serious issue, however there are concerns that current self-harm reduction programmes are seen as an outcome in themselves.

It calls on the Ministry of Justice to set out how it will evaluate and measure the impact of changes to the Assessment, Care in Custody and Teamwork (ACCT) process. It should also clarify what wider work is being done alongside ACCT to ensure that there is not an over reliance on a single mechanism. The Offender Management in Custody Model, where each prisoner is allocated a keyworker, is a welcome development and the Committee supports its rolling out across the female prison estate.

Coping with past trauma

The majority of women entering the prison system have experienced past trauma and this impacts on how they interact with the prison system. The Committee welcomes the move towards a more trauma-informed approach on the female prison estate. It calls on the MoJ to clarify which staff will be given training on supporting prisoners dealing with trauma and set out how it will monitor completion on an ongoing basis.

Impact on family life

Sending women to prison can have a significant effect on family life, particularly when they are the primary carer. It is concerning that the MoJ does not know how many women in prison are primary carers and it is vital that data collection in this respect is improved.

The impact of placing women in prisons far from their families can be severe. While it is welcome that more work is being done to improve community alternatives, the MoJ needs to do more to raise awareness of the Assisted Prison Visits Scheme to support prisoners to maintain direct contact with loved ones. The MoJ should also clarify what wider measures have been put in place to support visits and publish information on the number of visits that have taken place across the female prison estate.


Data collection on education is poor, making it difficult to draw conclusions on whether it is meeting the specific demands of women in the prison system. If current education levels or learning difficulties are not recorded it is difficult to know if their needs are being met.

The Committee is however concerned that educational opportunities are too narrow and levels of access vary depending on length of sentence. The MoJ should look at how it can broaden educational opportunities so that they support the needs of all women in the prison system irrespective of their term in prison.


Finding suitable accommodation on release is one of the most significant and urgent barriers to resettlement. The MoJ should work with partners across Government to develop a strategy that provides appropriate accommodation for women leaving prison. It should set out what accommodation is currently provided by its accommodation service and how it meets the specific needs of women prisoners. It should also set out what work is being done to support resettlement when they have been held in custody far from their homes.

Continuity of care also plays a crucial role in ensuring that women are adequately supported when leaving prison and the MoJ should set out what work they are carrying out to facilitate this.

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