Epidemic of self-harm sweeps women's jails

Prison system criticised after number of incidents doubles in five years

The number of women deliberately harming themselves in prison has almost doubled in five years – despite repeated government promises to improve conditions in women's jails.

Officials recorded 12,560 cases of women prisoners injuring themselves – mainly by cutting and burning – last year, equivalent to almost three incidents per inmate. In 2003, 6,437 instances of self-harm were recorded in English prisons, about 1.5 per inmate.

Although women make up just five per cent of the prison population in England and Wales, they account for more than half of all self-harming incidents.

Many of the women in prison have been convicted of minor crimes, but suffer high levels of mental illness and drug abuse. The largest number of incidents last year was in Eastwood Park prison, in Gloucestershire, where 2,584 were recorded, compared with 683 just five years earlier. High levels of self-harm also occurred in Styal, Cheshire (2,103 incidents last year), Holloway, north London (1,829), Bronzefield, west London (1,517) and Peterborough (1,337).

Paul Holmes, the Liberal Democrat justice spokesman, who obtained the figures, said: "It is nothing short of a disgrace how women are treated in our overcrowded penal system. It shows how desperate the situation is that the number of incidents has doubled."

He said: "The issue of women in prison has been ignored for far too long. There are record numbers behind bars but no evidence of a corresponding rise in women committing more serious crime.

"The Government must realise prison is not the right place for female offenders who pose no threat to the public."

A total of 4,291 women are currently in prison, a slight fall on last year, but still nearly double the number held just a decade ago. Research suggests that more women are sent to prison for shoplifting than any other crime. Forty per cent of sentenced women serve just three months or less. More than half of women in prison report they have suffered violence at home, and one in three has suffered sexual abuse. Two-thirds have a neurotic disorder, such as depression, anxiety and phobias.

Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: "Women injure themselves repeatedly in prison because they are mostly in a terrible state: poor, scared and ill, hurting from painful separation from their children, and detoxing from drugs and drink."

She added: "Why do we lock up our most damaged and vulnerable women in bleak under-staffed institutions which, despite best efforts, are almost bound to make them worse?"

A Prison Service spokeswoman said it has "a broad, integrated and evidence-based prisoner suicide prevention and self-harm management strategy that seeks to reduce the distress of all who live and work in prisons".

She said: "Government investment in prisons in recent years has resulted in a number of improvements in the women's estate: services for women who have misused drugs; programmes to address offending behaviour; in-reach community mental health teams; various resettlement projects, such as accommodation advice and mentoring."

Last year the government promised to provide extra money to community programmes that help the rehabilitation of repeat petty criminals, such as shoplifters. It also said it would mount a campaign to persuade magistrates to look at tough alternatives to jail for female offenders, many of whom have small children.

Suggested Topics
Sport
Romelu Lukaku
sportChelsea striker sends second teasing tweet of the day
News
peopleHowards' Way actress, and former mistress of Jeffrey Archer, was 60
News
Robyn Lawley
people
Sport
Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura sprays a line after calling for a free kick for Brazil
sport
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Investment Accounting Change Manager

£600 - £700 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Investment Accounting Change...

Microsoft Dynamics AX Functional Consultant

£65000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: A rare opportun...

Tax Solicitor

£40000 - £70000 per annum + EXCELLENT: Austen Lloyd: Tax Solicitor An excel...

Microsoft Dynamics AX Support Analyst

£45000 - £50000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: This is an exce...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz