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MPs concerned over number of women in prison

The Ministry of Justice predicts an increase in the female prison population by more than a third in the next three years.

25 July 2022

MPs have criticised the Government’s lack of progress in cutting the number of women in prison amid fears this could rise by more than a third in the next three years.

The Commons Justice Committee said there has not yet been “significant” change in addressing problems when holding women behind bars and not enough money had been invested to bring about improvements.

The Government previously pledged to reduce the number of women in custody.

In a report published on Tuesday, the committee said: “The 2018 Female Offender Strategy represented a welcome step forward in the Government’s recognition that a specific approach was needed to achieve outcomes for women.

Woman with handcuffs on her wrists
The Government previously pledged to reduce the number of women in custody (Alamy/PA)

“We are, however, concerned about the lack of progress the Government has made against the aims and objectives set out in the strategy and note that the female offender programme has lacked the investment needed to make the aims of the strategy achievable in reality.

“One of the strategic objectives of the strategy is to see fewer women in custody. While there has been a decline since February 2017 from 3,958 to 3,219 in July 2022, to a large extent this has been a result of lower crime and the reduction in court activity during the pandemic.

“Moreover, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) itself now predicts an increase in the female population by more than a third over present levels in the next three years.”

The findings also raised concerns that the “rate of violent incidents across the female estate rose during the pandemic”.

Prison officer Colin Roberston locks a separation cell in the Dumyat Wing during a visit to HMP&YOI Cornton Vale in Stirling
The Ministry of Justice predicts an increase in the female prison population by more than a third in the next three years (Andrew Milligan/PA)

The MPs added: “While we acknowledge that the pandemic may have contributed to the increase, the MoJ and Her Majesty’s Prisons and Probation Service (HMPPS) should set out what work is being done to address the level of assault across the female estate and to prevent it from increasing further.”

The committee found there had been slow progress in setting up a pilot of five residential women’s centres. Although the first centre has been announced in Swansea, the committee called for the MoJ to provide a timeline of when the next four will be developed.

The report also demanded more clarity on how 500 new female prison places will be used.

Committee chairman Sir Bob Neill 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.

General view of HMP Downview, a women’s closed category prison which is located on the outskirts of Banstead in Surrey
General view of HMP Downview, a women’s closed category prison which is located on the outskirts of Banstead in Surrey (Beverley Rouse/PA)

“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.”

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “Custody is used as a last resort for women and since we launched our Female Offender Strategy in 2018, the number entering prison has fallen by nearly a third.

“The new prison places we are building will, alongside our wider reforms, improve access to education, healthcare and work, so female offenders can turn their lives around.”

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