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Women: Deaths in Custody

Volume 722: debated on Tuesday 16 November 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking to reduce the number of deaths of women in custody.

My Lords, any death in prison custody is tragic. The number and rate of self-inflicted deaths of women in custody has declined from a peak of 14 in 2003 to three in 2009. This year there has been one self-inflicted death in custody. We will continue to work hard to reduce this further by focusing on care planning for each individual woman in custody and by seeking to ensure that all agencies concerned work effectively together.

I thank the noble Baroness for that reply, because it is rather useful. But is it not unacceptable that the female prison population has increased by 30 per cent over the past decade? In January 2009, there were 4,199 women in custody, one-third of whom had no previous convictions at all. According to the Corston review, there should be custody for women only for serious and violent crimes and for threats to the public. In the 10 years to December 2009, there were 69 self-inflicted deaths of women in prison. Women are often imprisoned for minor offences and the impact is on their children. What action are the Government taking to change this?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that question and for ensuring that we focus on this important issue. He is quite right: if you look at the sentencing pattern for women compared with that for men, you will find that we are a law-abiding sex, it seems. Although only 5 per cent of prisoners are women, they are in prison for lesser offences than are men. That, surely, is not how it should be. In many cases, those women are extremely vulnerable; there is a high incidence of mental illness, drug abuse, other substance abuse and so on. The noble Lord is also right that they usually have dependent children. The previous Government took the Corston report forward and sought to address this. We will be doing as much as we can to take that further forward. I point the noble Lord in the direction of the sentencing review that is shortly to come out.

My Lords, women prisoners are over three times more likely to inflict self-harm as their male counterparts and have higher levels of psychological distress than male prisoners. What will the coalition Government be doing to deal with this unacceptable situation and ensure that when women enter prison—and we hope that far fewer will do so in future—they are properly assessed for appropriate treatment?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is right; there are high levels of self-harming among women prisoners. I point her in the direction of my previous answer. The first thing is to address the disproportionate sentencing of women to prison, and I hope that that can be looked at in the context of the sentencing review. I hope that noble Lords, like the noble Baroness, will play a full part in looking at that and ensuring that it addresses the issue of self-harm. If we can divert women from prison, that will be very helpful. For those who are in prison, there has been a positive shift to address the issue, led partly by the moves of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, to ensure that prisoners are covered by the National Health Service rather than by the Prison Medical Service. There is a mental health White Paper coming down the track from the Department of Health, and that too should help to address the issue.

My Lords, given the high levels of social, psychiatric and emotional disorders among the women prison population, does the Minister agree that much more needs to be done to improve the training of prison officers and people on the front line who are dealing with these girls on a daily basis?

Yes, that is the case. Quite a lot of investment has gone into training prison officers; if I can find the page in my brief, I will find how many have been trained. I seem to remember that something like £600,000 has gone into supporting them and a large number of prison officers are now trained to look for the tell-tale signs. Clearly, though, that is still insufficient.

The noble Baroness will be aware that one of the reasons for the encouraging reduction in the number of tragic deaths has been the enhancement of the health service provided by primary care trusts within the prison setting. Is she as concerned as I am that, as a result of the abolition of primary care trusts, the replacement GP consortia will not be in a position to provide the kind of enhanced services that we have seen introduced in the past few years?

I thank the noble Lord for that question. Looking after prisoners will come under the national commissioning board rather than the GP consortia. The board will work in conjunction with the GP consortia to deliver the best possible care to those in the locality, working with other specialists and the public health service, which will be much more locally based.

My Lords, on a recent visit to Low Newton Prison, a women’s prison in Durham, I met the families of inmates who had been imprisoned for credit card fraud. Not wishing to diminish the seriousness of that crime, I just wonder whether it is right that we should separate women from their families, at a cost of £30,000 a year to the taxpayer, for credit card fraud, when they would be better placed back in their homes, working in the community and paying off their debts.

I agree with my noble friend. It is extremely important that in this kind of case we address the issue of rehabilitation and try to ensure that there is no reoffending rather than put people in prison. I hope that the sentencing review later in the year will help to address this kind of issue.

My Lords, it is estimated that only 4 per cent of women prisoners need to be in prison for the public’s protection. Can the Minister confirm that figure?

I have not seen those specific figures but I have seen a lot of evidence indicating that there are far too many women in prison. The damaging effect on them and their families knows no bounds. It is therefore extremely important that this is urgently addressed.

My Lords, in view of the pressure that the prison budget is liable to come under, can the Minister say whether the sorts of useful interventions that come through education, and particularly the kind of education that comes through the arts organisations in prisons, will be protected? It has a particularly beneficial effect on the sort of prisoners she has been talking about.

The key thing is to cut reoffending and to rehabilitate. That is the best way to protect the public and to redirect those women to other things. All of these aspects will be looked at in terms of their efficacy.