Self-harm among female prisoners in England and Wales at record high

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Official figures show steep rise during pandemic in number of incidents involving women

Incidents of self-harm among women in prison have hit a record high, official figures reveal, after a big increase during the pandemic.

The number of self-harm incidents in the women’s prison estate in England and Wales increased 8% to 12,443 in the year to September, compared with the previous 12 months, while on a quarterly basis the number of incidents rose by 24%.

This compares with a 7% decline year on year or a 5% rise quarter on quarter in men’s prisons.

The rate of incidents, which takes population size into account, was markedly different between men and women. There were 3,557 incidents for every 1,000 women prisoners in the 12-month period, compared with 595 for every 1,000 men in prison.

There were 10 incidents for every self-harming female inmate, compared with 4.2 for every self-harming male prisoner.

The rise coincides with a highly restrictive regime applied to prisons to mitigate the spread of Covid-19 in the estate, which experts including the then chief inspector of prisons have warned would have a devastating impact on prisoners’ mental health.

Frances Crook, the chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “While men’s prisons have found some measure of respite through lockdown measures, the increase in self-injury in women’s prisons is stark and extremely concerning. The mental distress caused by isolation can affect people in many different ways, some of which may not be evident for months or years.”

Wera Hobhouse, the Liberal Democrat justice spokesperson, said: “Our prisons are in crisis. The amount of self-harm, especially in women’s prisons, is shockingly high and rising. Far too many women are sent to prison on short sentences for non-violent offences. Most of them have experienced abuse, and many are mothers of dependent children.”

The figures showed there were 318 deaths in prison custody in the 12 months to December, an increase of 8% on the previous 12 months. Seventy-one prisoners died within 28 days of having a positive Covid-19 test or where there was a clinical assessment that the coronavirus contributed to the death.

There were 67 apparent self-inflicted deaths in the same period, a decrease of 21% in the previous 12 months.

Lyn Brown MP, shadow minister for prisons and probation, said: “These statistics show this incompetent government is losing control of our prisons, which have become much more dangerous places over the last ten years.

“We need far stronger action to drive dangers down to ensure our prisons enable rehabilitation and are healthy places for staff and prisoners alike.”

On Saturday, the Ministry of Justice was criticised for plans to create 500 new prison places for women as part of proposals designed to reduce numbers in the criminal justice system.

Deborah Coles, the director of the charity Inquest, said: “The continuing rise in self-harm in women’s prisons comes at a time when the Ministry of Justice has announced 500 new prison places for women. Sadly, this will mean yet more unnecessary suffering and harm.”

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