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Prisons: Self-harm Among Women Prisoners

Volume 811: debated on Monday 15 March 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to address the level of self-harm among women prisoners.

My Lords, we are determined to reduce the level of self-harm in the women’s estate. We have established a women’s estate self-harm task force to address this. Alongside interventions to mitigate the impact of Covid-19, such as increased video calls with loved ones, the task force is co-ordinating longer-term work—including the introduction of key workers, expanding therapeutic services and improving gender-specific training—to address the factors driving self-harm in the women’s estate.

I thank my noble friend the Minister for his reply. Female offenders are more vulnerable than male offenders and benefit from help and guidance from social workers. One of the recommendations in the Farmer review of female offenders published in 2019 was to have a social worker based in all prisons to support vulnerable women. What progress has been made to achieve this?

My Lords, my noble friend raises an important point. We are working to improve the availability of social work in prisons. She will be aware, of course, that at the moment all prisons are hampered by the Covid-19 pandemic in what they can provide. However, for example, we have been able to reintroduce chaplaincy into prisons at a very significant level, and the relevant authorities are trying to ensure that all services, including social workers, can be reintroduced as well.

My Lords, the levels of reported self-harm are extremely concerning. Five and half years ago my review, Changing Prisons, Saving Lives, found that the despair that led to self-harm and suicide was exacerbated by prisoners being isolated without access to purposeful activity and sufficient contact with their families. Over the last year, what proportion of time have women prisoners been on regimes that meant that they were locked in their cells for 23 hours or more a day? What has been the impact of Covid on the number of face-to-face contacts they have had with their families?

The noble Lord asked two questions. On the first point, during the Covid pandemic, prison estates have tried to put in regimes which are as generous as possible given the surrounding circumstances. He will be aware, like everybody in this House, that those circumstances have changed rapidly from time to time, so the figures are not available because the data cannot accurately capture that constantly changing picture. So far as contact with family members is concerned, we have doubled the amount of phone credit given to prisoners, and we have introduced “purple visits”—video calls—so that prisoners can see their families and loved ones as well.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that correct nutrition can have a considerable impact on those considering self-harm? In asking this, I must declare an interest as president of the Institute for Food, Brain & Behaviour, one of whose fellows published an article on the subject as long ago as 1976.

My Lords, nutrition is obviously an important part of the picture, and perhaps it is a wider point than the noble Lord identifies. People come into prison having suffered from poor nutrition, which reminds us that a lot of them are self-harming before they come into prison. Self-harm is not just something which happens in prison; it is a problem brought into prison from outside as well.

My Lords, we hear that self-harm by women in prison today has increased by an alarming 8%. We know too that 60% of women in prison today have experienced domestic abuse. The vast majority in prison are held for non-violent offences on short custodial sentences, and many of these women go on to reoffend—a destructive and costly cycle. Does the Minister agree that short custodial orders should be a last resort and that we must seek alternatives, where appropriate, within the community? Will he inform the House on the progress made to pilot five residential women’s centres, as set out in the Government’s Female Offender Strategy?

My Lords, the short answer to my noble friend’s first question is yes. The reason is that women generally commit less serious offences than men; therefore they get shorter custodial sentences. Short custodial sentences are a problem because they can have significant negative impacts, in terms of family, losing accommodation and losing employment, while not really giving prison governors and the authorities an opportunity to do anything meaningful with regard to rehabilitation. So far as the first residential women’s centres are concerned, we announced that our first one will be in Wales. I am particularly pleased—if I may say so—that a suitable site in south Wales is now being looked at for the second site. That will provide a robust community alternative for women who would otherwise receive a very short custodial sentence.

Women prisoners engage in self-harm as a method of coping with being in prison and separation from their children, of whom they are probably the main carer. At the moment, without visits, and with increasing numbers held on remand and in solitary confinement, why have the Government not made use of their own early release scheme, which ground to a halt last year? Can the Minister tell the House how many times in the last year the 42-day maximum solitary confinement rule has been breached for women prisoners—or does 23 hours locked alone in a cell not count as solitary confinement?

My Lords, we should not proceed on the basis that self-harm is something which starts in prison. On the contrary, a number of women—perhaps many women—have been using self-harm to cope for many years. That is exacerbated, no doubt, in the prison environment. We have to remember when we talk about the incidence of self-harm in prison that this is characterised by a small number of women who self-harm multiple times. That does not mean that it is not a problem; it means that we need to focus our resources on that relatively small number of women who self-harm repeatedly. The noble Lord asked for particular statistics; I will have to write to him on that matter.

My Lords, as has been said, anxiety is considerable for mothers in prison. The Visiting Mum scheme in HMP Eastwood Park found that the incidence of self-harm reduced when women had regular support contact with their children. What are the Government doing to ensure that motherhood is properly highlighted in pre-sentencing reports and that prison sentences are not used for mothers when a community-based intervention would be appropriate—as just highlighted by the Minister himself?

My Lords, whether somebody is a mother ought to be a factor in any pre-sentencing report. However, with great respect to the right reverend Prelate, we cannot have a rule that, merely and solely because someone is a mother, they can never be sent to prison. We are trying to ensure that mothers can maintain contact with their family, and in particular their children. As I said earlier, during the Covid-19 pandemic we have set up video calls, because our research shows, and the feedback indicates, that seeing children on the screen is a very different experience from merely listening to them on the telephone.

My Lords, I refer to my trusteeship of the Prison Reform Trust, set out in the register. The recent PRT report What About Me?, on the impact on children when mothers are involved in the criminal justice system, highlighted the damaging but unsurprising consequences for children when their mothers are in prison. But will my noble friend agree that what is more surprising—and plain shocking—is that in a Written Parliamentary Answer to a Question in January 2018, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice stated that the number of women with children under 18 when sentenced is

“not held centrally and can only be obtained at disproportionate cost.”

How can a civilised prison system counter the incidence of self-harm if it does not know basic information such as that?

My Lords, my noble and learned friend raises an important point. As I said, one of the factors in self-harm is, no doubt, being separated from one’s children. One would therefore want to know how many women in prison are mothers, and indeed how many children they have. Perhaps I can undertake to look into the particular point which my noble and learned friend has raised and write to him on it.

My Lords, given the stark 24% rise in self-harm by women in prison in the most recent Ministry of Justice statistics and the need for a whole-system approach to address substance misuse, stable housing and abusive partners, what measures are the Government advocating for the probation service to adopt to give sentencers the confidence to use community-based sentences? As we are coming out of lockdown, when will probation be able to offer women offenders on community sentences full access to face-to-face interventions and the support that is expected by the sentencers?

My Lords, on the noble Lord’s first question, we remain committed to the strategy set out in the Female Offender Strategy: that is, fewer women offending and reoffending, with a greater proportion of women managed in the community successfully, and therefore fewer women in custody and better conditions for those in custody. Through the community sentence treatment requirement programme, health and justice partners are working together to ensure that greater use is made of mental health, alcohol and drug treatment requirements as part of community sentences. On the second part of the question, on probation, given the pandemic, probation areas are working on their recovery plans and will gradually be recovering their service in line with the staged approach that is being taken by Her Majesty’s Government generally.

Sitting suspended.