6 March 2020

Fifteen years ago a series of preventable deaths of women in HMP Styal, and the family campaigns which followed, led to a much-needed review of the treatment of women in the criminal justice system – the ground-breaking, Corston Review, published in 2007. Thirteen years later, the situation has never felt so desperate and more than 100 women have died in prison. There has been almost no progress on the necessary systemic and structural change needed.

Dying on the inside

INQUEST’s report, Still Dying on the Inside: Examining deaths in women’s prisons, reframes deaths in custody as a form of violence against women, given many women’s experiences of abuse and trauma. The report provides unique insight into deaths in women’s prisons, identifying serious safety failures and the lack of action on recommendations arising from deaths.

Prisons are clearly ill-equipped to respond to the complex needs of many women sentenced to custody. Failure to treat women with decency, humanity and compassion is a consistent feature of women’s experiences of the criminal justice system.

On 3rd March, 2020, the inquest into the death of Charlotte Nokes concluded with the jury finding her death was by ‘natural causes’. Charlotte was 38 when she was found dead in her cell in HMP Peterborough in 2016. She was serving an indefinite Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) sentence and was over seven years over the minimum tariff when she died.

Charlotte’s father Steven Nokes said: 

“As a family, we remain concerned about the way Charlotte was treated in prison and do not believe the care she received was appropriate. She had many struggles in life, was beaten up for being ‘different’ and experienced mental ill health. Prison was never the best place for her. The indefinite sentence only made this worse. Charlotte lost hope and so did we. She told us the IPP sentence was really a life sentence, and despite her hopes and dreams of moving to London to study art, she knew she would die in prison. This cannot continue.”

Steven spoke in detail to The Guardian during the inquest.

Read about recent inquests that took place in 2018-2019

After release from prison

The harmful effects of imprisonment do not end at the prison gates and INQUEST has become increasingly concerned about the rising numbers of women who die after they leave custody. 

INQUEST’s report, Deaths of people following release from prison, highlights the record numbers of women dying and calls for immediate action to ensure greater scrutiny, learning and prevention.

Since 2010/11, 211 women died whilst on post custody supervision. In 2018/19, an unprecedented 52 women died - equivalent to one woman every week, and at least half of these were self-inflicted. Women under probation supervision appear to be at significantly greater risk of taking their own lives when compared to women in the general population.

These figures are deeply disturbing and require urgent scrutiny. There is a distinct and dangerous lack of oversight when it comes to investigating and learning from these deaths. This is made worse by the lack of any formal oversight from bodies such as the Prison and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation. What is clear however is that women are being released into failing support systems, poverty, homelessness and an absence of services for mental health and addictions.

The persistence and repetition of the same issues going back many years reveals nothing less than a glaring failure of government to act. Government must work across health, social care and justice departments to dismantle failing women’s prisons and invest in specialist women’s centres and services outside of the criminal justice system.

INQUEST recommendations;

  1. Invest in welfare, health, housing and social care such as refuges and rape crisis centres, drug and alcohol support services, gender appropriate community services and small community based therapeutic centres.
  2. Divert women away from the criminal justice system – part of the former Holloway women’s prison site should be developed as a women’s building to deliver gender specific services. Money from the sale of the former prison should be ring-fenced for community provision. 
  3. Imprisonment should be abolished as a response to women who have broken the law. For the 100 or so women whose offence is so serious that they may be considered a danger to others, a network of small therapeutic secure units should be created.
  4. Deaths of all women on post custody supervision should be investigated by an independent body such as the Prison and Probation Ombudsman, with adequate resources allocated to allow this to happen.