18th June 2013

INQUEST today publishes a comprehensive report on the deaths of women in prisonand calls for a radical overhaul of the way women in conflict with the law are treated.

Six years after the Corston Review took place, the report ‘Preventing the deaths of women in prison: the need for an alternative approach’ examines the circumstances surrounding the deaths of women in prison and highlights how the underlying problems remain despite the serious criticisms contained in Baroness Corston’s report.

Deaths of women in prison throw the issues faced by women in the criminal justice system into sharp relief. Being the most extreme outcome of a system that has failed them in every way, the investigation and inquest process that follows offers the opportunity to examine the way women in the conflict with the law are treated and has uncovered some disturbing and ‘sadly familiar’ patterns. There have been 100 deaths of women in prison since 2002, and 38 since the Corston report was published in March 2007.

The report contains the stories of six women who died in prison in the last six years, including that of Melanie Beswick whose inquest was heard in April. All of these women were mothers, and five of them had been drug-dependent before entering prison. All raise serious questions about the appropriateness of being placed in a prison setting.

INQUEST’s research shows that the following issues are raised time and again:

  •     Histories of significant disadvantage and complex needs
  •     Inappropriate use of imprisonment given the offence
  •     Isolation from families
  •     Prisons unable to meet women’s complex needs
  •     Poor medical care and limited access to therapeutic services in prison
  •     Unsafe prison environments and cells

The report also raises concerns that with the economic recession in the UK impacting disproportionately on women and cuts being made to crucial front line social and welfare services, it is likely that more women will be criminalised because of poverty and social inequality. It is worrying that the limited positive changes that have occurred such as the setting up of diversion schemes and funding for women’s centres are now under threat because of a lack of sustainable funding. Current government proposals to remove access to specialist criminal defence solicitors (who know the particular mental health or other vulnerabilities of the women they represent) may compound the negative impact on women caught up in the criminal justice system and as a result, more women will end up in prison.

Deborah Coles, co-director of INQUEST said:

“Despite the damning conclusions reached by Baroness Corston, and the ensuing stringent recommendations, the fundamental issues affecting women in prison remain.

“While there are issues that need to be addressed by the prison system as a matter of urgency, such as management of drug problems, support structures for women at risk of self harm, and management of bullying, there are even more fundamental questions to be answered about the use of prison as punishment for women in conflict with the law.

“A body of evidence already exists that shows that prison is an ineffective, expensive and inhumane response to women’s offending. It harms vulnerable women and does not address the underlying causes of their re-offending. This government’s policies in prison, probation and legal aid cuts will we fear lead to more women being imprisoned in institutions ill-equipped and ill-resourced to deal with their complex needs, increasing the risk of deaths and self injury.

“We do not need more reports, consultations and advisory groups, but sustained investment in community-based alternatives that address the many complex reasons why women enter the criminal justice system – sexual and physical abuse, poverty, homelessness, addiction, and mental and physical ill health.”


Notes to editors:

  1. The report is available here
  2. The Government’s record on the treatment of women in prison will be examined by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women in July 2013. The CEDAW Committeehas asked the UK Government to provide information on the implementation of the Corston report and in particular on measures which ‘aim at providing quality mental health services for women in prison, as well as measures undertaken for gender-sensitive handling of detainees’. INQUEST has submitted this report to the Committee in order to inform that examination.
  3. The report is based on written evidence given by INQUEST to the parliamentary Justice Committee inquiry on women offenders