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Women in Prison: Three reasons why the prison system is failing women

By Josie Channer


Since I left the prison service we’ve seen violence in prisons skyrocket and prisons like Birmingham are reported to be unfit for human habitation. The Tory’s have tried everything, privatisation, bringing in the third sector, a drive to reduce short term sentences, yet re-offending is still stubbornly high and prisons are still failing. All these new initiatives cannot off set the cuts that the prison service has had to endure.


However, I believe that the prison system has always failed women. After working as a senior prison officer of Holloway’s Drug and Mental Health Unit I do not take the view that women should not be sent to prison at all. When what was once Europe’s largest female prison was re-built in 1971 it was designed with a hospital layout with wide corridors and dormitories that snaked around corners. The idea being that women were mad not bad. It was closed as the UK’s highest security prison for women in 2016. I can testify to the fact that some women are just bad and belong in prison for a very long time.


My years in service exposed me to the many complex reasons why women end up in prison. There was an overwhelming theme that the women were victims themselves struggling to get the support they needed or pawns in a larger game. There were a lot of foreign national women that were caught bringing in drugs. I remember speaking to one prisoner, I asked her why in the world she would risk leaving her children and wondered if it was greed? It didn’t take long to work out that she had a choice, the risk of being caught or the risk of starvation. I also remember the evening that she came back from court after being sentenced. She had fainted in the dock when the judge gave her 12 years.


There are three areas that would make a significate difference to the outcome of women on the verge of getting sent to prison, mental health, drug rehabilitation and education.


1. Mental health


I remember like it was yesterday my first day at Holloway prison. We unlocked the wing for breakfast and the green corridors became alive with women. The women busied themselves with getting mops and buckets to clean their cells and queued patiently for the bathrooms. The smell of perfumed shower gels and creams drifted down the wing.


I sat back in my chair with a cup of tea talking to the officers. There was a commotion on the landing so I was abandoned in the unit office. I sat alone not knowing whether to go and observe or stay put. At first, I strained my ears to listen in to the commotion in the distance, I stood up as screams of terror engulfed the wing. I left the unit office to investigate.


A distinctive prisoner had been on C wing for a while. Her matted afro hair and strong body odour deterred even the toughest officers and her silence made her even more terrifying.

That morning she emerged from her room with a full-to-the-brim bucket of excrement that she had hidden under her bed for two weeks. The wing descended into chaos. The unit officer was the first to be hit. Dark brown thick excrement dripped down his perfect white shirt. The officer ran back to his office and locked himself in while screaming women banged on the door to be let in. I ran in to the glass common room bringing with me as many prisoners as I could before I locked the door from the inside.


Other prisoners hid where they could, under their beds, in the bathrooms and in the smoking room, barricading the doors behind them.


I yelled into my radio “Immediate Assistance Required! Immediate Assistance Required!”. The siren rang throughout the prison. She stood by the wing door waiting for the officers that would answer the call. The first officer through the door was met by a full bucket of excrement on her face. The prisoner had covered herself in her own mess and stood licking out the bucket goading officers to dare her down. I watched her from behind the glass with the other women defying about 15 officers as they encircled her. They nervously moved forward and when she jumped forward they jumped back. I continued to watch as they then forced her down to the ground like a dangerous wild animal. Five male officers piled on top of her. From behind the glass windows I heard the crack when they smashed the side of her face to the floor. Yet she resisted. I winced as they used all their strength to bend her wrist back to a deformed position. In agony she began to comply with officers’ demands, but her surrender meant nothing. The prisoner was carried to the segregation wing. We evacuated the C wing to the gym for several hours while the wing was professionally cleaned. Two officers had to be taken to hospital after swallowing excrement.


That first experience is an example of how the prison service responds to women with mental health problems. I noted that after weeks of displaying unusual behaviour the prisoner finally came to a crisis point and was then taken by force to the segregation unit. She was after several days assessed by the mental health team and transferred to the Health unit. However, several years later when I became manager of that unit I discovered how little support staff and prisoners were given.


Mental health provision in prison needs to be completely overhauled. Ongoing training for prison officers on mental health is vital. Although prison staff worked alongside mental health professionals, prison officers receive no specialist training. Prisoners with quite sever mental health issues were locked up in their cells for 23 hours due to staff shortages. Given the level of cuts to the prison service in recent years I doubt that much has changed. Investment in community mental health to support women before they reach crisis point and commit an offence cannot be put off any longer.


2. Drug rehabilitation


I did my best to support many drug addicts in prison whose lives had been stolen by drugs. They tended to be in their mid-30’s but looked like they were in there mid-70’s with missing teeth and the skin hanging off their bones. The system had given up on them and they only cared for what drug substitution medication they would be given while they waited in line. It was a shock when I met an 18-year old girl in prison who had already been given up on because she was so addicted to drugs. I don’t know whether it was the drugs that had fried her brain or the fact that she was so young and immature but she was I would call a challenging prisoner. She was the first prisoner that I had to restrain, she lashed out one lunchtime when she was told there was not second helpings, and she threw a chair at an officer. She was constantly in and out of Holloway. six months here, three months there. That time it was for shoplifting. A few days earlier, I asked her what happened, she said "A stupid old lady grassed me up”. From her way of thinking, the reason why she was in prison was the fault of a member of the public who had reported her for stealing the goods and not because she had actually done anything wrong. A year latter I was holding her hand in the labour unit at the Whittington Hospital during the birth of her first child. Two years later I held her had again. Both children were removed from her care bone by social services immediately.


No government seems to be able to fix the broken link between prison, drug rehabilitation services and probation. It is clear to me that something bold is needed to cut the link between repeat re-offending and drug abuse. Really for people with drug misuse problems prison needs to be cut out altogether and replaced with secure drug rehabilitation centres. It is accepted that short term sentences do not work, it would not work in a rehabilitation centre either. Ensuring that someone spends longer behind bars who would under today’s sentencing guidelines would only serve 6-months of a 12-month sentence is a controversial idea. But being tough on the causes of crime means being tough on drugs. I believe that this should be treated as a public health issue first and foremost. I see secure drug rehabilitation centres not as places were prisoners would be wasting time behind bars costing the tax payer thousands but a place where they can receive specialised intensive support. Such centres would operate on an open prison or probation secure accommodation basis.


3. Education, employment and skills


I have tried to think of an example that could illustrate how education, employment and skills training can transform the life of a person in prison. Unfortunately, I was not able to think of one example, not because there are none but because its currently the exception not the rule. Education in women’s prisons is mainly therapeutic, with a narrow range of subjects and some basic English and Maths. Employment and skills training are seen as the role of probation. Women are almost expected to come out of prison and remain dependant, instead of being given the tools they need to find work.


Many of the courses in prison are a limited and aimed at what prisoners would like to do, for example Arts & Crafts. For those under 25 education should be the focus. Local colleges should partner with prisons to offer a full range of interesting and useful courses that they can start in prison. For those over 25 adult learning and continuous development should be encouraged. Some adult prisoners may benefit from taking an art course in prison, that should be identified specifically and not just taken because there is nothing else on offer.


Employment and skills training need to be just as important in women’s prisons as it is in male prisons. The focus on finding work is also not just for the probation service but the job hunt should start in prison. There’s so much more that the government can do to incentivise employers to take who could be consider as high-risk employees. The fact is if an offender re-offends it’s not only the cost of imprisonment that needs to be considered but the cost to the community and the victims. The state has a duty to do all it can to end the cycle of crime that many of these offenders feel trapped in by providing access to employment and skills training and all the assistance they need to stand on their own two feet when they leave prison.


Diverting women with mental health and drug substance misuse issues away from prison and into secure centres that can really deal with their issues is not being soft on crime. These individuals need to access the support that they need to move forward with their lives and contribute to society. In addition, if women had access to a wider range of quality education, employment and skills training in prison we may well see numbers come down considerably.


2015 The

Prison Officer Josie Channer

impact of short term sentences report by the MOJ: click here


Women In Prison: click here


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