IWD: The experience of women in custody

23 February 2018

A woman has her period and is locked in a cell without access to sanitary protection or the use of a private toilet. She isn’t in Nepal or Uganda, she is in one of many police stations across England and Wales which were found by the ICVA in 2017 to be failing to meet these very basic needs of women and girls. The ICVA found that:

  • Few police forces offer women hygiene packs without being asked;
  • There is little privacy for women when they need to change sanitary protection or wash;
  • Some forces fail to pixelate CCTV observation of toilet facilities, and;
  • Women are strip searched and have their clothing removed by officers who have not been provided with statutory guidance on how to treat women experiencing their period.

The situation is so bad that the ICVA obtained a Legal Opinion by Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC and Angela Patrick of Doughty Street Chambers which stated that women and girls in these conditions are likely to experience a breach of their human rights protected by the Human Rights Act 1998.

It is hard to understand how the police in a developed country could fail to provide for the most obvious and basic of needs of women. As my colleague Rebecca has highlighted, we really need to start talking about periods without shame or embarrassment.

However, we also need to start talking about the experience of women in custody and how the needs of female prisoners differ from those of male prisoners. Women make up less than 5% of the prison population and are therefore a minority group in the criminal justice system. As a minority, they are disadvantaged by a system which is primarily run with men and not women in mind.

Women in prison are more likely than men to self-harm and attempt suicide. In 2015 in UK prisons, women had a higher rate of self-inflicted deaths than men (See PPO Learning lessons bulletin Fatal Incidents investigations Issue 13 March 2017). Although women make up 5% of the prison population, they account for 23% of all recorded incidents of self-harm.  The number of females known to self-harm per 1000 prisoners is around three times the male figure. The recent inquest into the death of Emily Hartley in April 2016 at HMP New Hall was a sad illustration of one of the reasons for this: women in prison are more likely than men to be mentally ill and, as in the male estate, there is a severe lack of facilities for the provision of healthcare to mentally ill prisoners.

Two-thirds of imprisoned women are mothers to children, and a third of these women have children under the age of five (According to Prison Reform Trust – Sentencing of Mothers November 2015). As there are only 12 women’s prisons in England, women are more likely than men to be further away from their home, a situation that was made worse by the recent closure of HMP Holloway. As a result, it will be harder for female prisoners to receive family visits which is a further reason why women are at risk of a deterioration in their mental health whilst in prison. However even more worryingly, the young children of women in prison will suffer from being kept away from their mothers. Some might say this separation is unnecessary since the vast majority of women in prison have committed a non-violent offence and a higher proportion of women compared to men are put in prison to serve short sentences.

As we have blogged about before, the prison system is currently not equipped to meet the needs of transgender women and keep them safe. Transgender women are still kept in male prisons against their wishes even after a number of suicides of transgender women who had asked to be moved to a female prison prior to killing themselves. 

The prison system is currently under resourced and all prisoners, irrespective of gender, suffer as a result. The number of deaths in custody have risen across the prison estate and there is overcrowding and a severe lack of mental healthcare treatment for both men and women. However, as with many areas of life, women are unnecessarily disadvantaged by a system which is dominated by the needs of men. At a very basic level, it shouldn’t require a report by an independent organisation to point out that women in police custody require access to sanitary protection without asking.  At the other end of the spectrum, the mental health problems faced by female prisoners and how and where they should be safely imprisoned are complex matters with no easy solution. But when the failure to consider these issues results in a breach of basic human rights there is no excuse for failing to take action. Equality of the sexes has come on in leaps and bounds in so many other areas in our country but for women in custody we do still need to #PressforProgress.


IWD is an opportunity to build on the progress that has been made towards gender parity and to celebrate the achievements of women on a global scale. This year, #PressforProgress.

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