What can we celebrate for Women in Prison this International Women’s Day?

12 Mar 2014

Laurel Townsend, Policy and Campaigns Manager, Women in Prison

International Women’s Day, for me, is about celebrating women and celebrating women’s achievements.  It doesn’t often feel like there is a lot to celebrate in the work we do to campaign for a more just justice system for women.  But on 10 March I was in a meeting that gave me cause to celebrate.  Not a meeting designed as an International Women’s Day event at all but one that was focused on upholding women’s rights.  The meeting was held by the HM Inspectorate of Prisons to consult on their Expectations for women prisoners.  For the first time the Prisons Inspectorate has developed specific Expectations to inspect women’s prisons against.  That for me is worth celebrating in its own right – at last we are at a point where it is recognised explicitly that maintaining dignity in places of imprisonment looks different for women than for men. 

The content of the Expectations is worth celebrating too.  Drawing on the Inspectorate’s knowledge of prisons as well as international standards designed to protect prisoners’ rights (including the Bangkok Rules on the treatment of women prisoners) the draft Expectations contain a robust set of criteria to judge prisons against.  These criteria and the discussion included learning and skills.  Specifically, how to ensure that the education and training on offer is what women want and need.  The draft contains a new expectation that an effective women-centred analysis of the needs of the population (in conjunction with relevant research) inform what is on offer to women and that the provision is varied and not based on gender stereotypes. 

I am less whole-heartedly celebratory about other women-specific penal policy developments, the most important of which is the Women’s Custodial Estate Review, published by NOMS in October 2013.  Most of the attention the Review received focussed on the planned closure of the two Open prisons for women.  But there is much more to the Review and some of it is well worth celebrating:

Open units, outside the prison perimeter, will be trialled at HMP Styal (bringing us closer to a pilot of a small custodial unit than at any other point in the 7 years since Baroness Corston recommended them).  

Women with complex needs should be better identified, managed and supported towards release.

There should be better access to interventions throughout the estate and less churn should prevent the disruption that comes with being shipped from prison to prison and the impact that has on learning as well as wellbeing.

Just as women are a small proportion of the prison population, so too, reform for women feels like a very small part of what is happening to the criminal justice landscape.  As is too often the case there is a risk that progress for women will be overshadowed by reforms designed for the majority male prison population and probation caseload.  There is nothing to celebrate in the government’s decision not to contract specifically under Transforming Rehabilitation for services for women. As with OLASS contracts, leaving women as a small part of a big contract means their needs are not prioritised.      

The Prison Inspectorate’s women-specific Expectations are going to be vital as the landscape changes because they will continue to focus attention on ensuring women’s dignity in prison regardless of the category of prison or who is running services.  So let’s celebrate this progression and use the commitments made in the Review to drive forward further progress for women in prison. 

To find out more about Women in Prison visit their website here


Road to Reduction: Women in Prison’s Response to the Women’s Custodial Estate Review

Transforming Rehabilitation and Women (Women in Prison Briefing)

HMIP Information on the Current Expectations

Women’s Custodial Estate Review