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Women sent to prison solely on mental health grounds

Photographer – Andy Aitchison

In National Mental Health Awareness week, Independent Monitoring Boards (IMBs) are again drawing attention to the high level of mental health need and self-harm incidents in women’s prisons.

Women can be sent to prison as a ‘place of safety’ under the Mental Health Act, or for their ‘own protection’ under the Bail Act. Though there are currently proposals to change this, the number of mentally unwell women held in prisons under these provisions has increased in practice, with one prison receiving five women a month on average.

Some women were sent to prison because they had attempted suicide; some had been diagnosed with a severe mental illness and needed medication and there was no adequate community provision. Of six women sent to one local prison for their ‘own protection’ in a month, only three had been transferred to a mental health hospital six months later.

IMBs across seven women’s prisons in England and Wales also found:

  • Increases in the rate of self-harm. At one prison there was a total of 295 self-harm incidents in August 2022, including 52 over the August bank holiday weekend; at another, one woman self-harmed up to 20 times a day, and at a third one woman self-harmed 96 times, eight requiring hospital admission.
  • Where they existed, both inpatient and specialist facilities in women’s prisons were often full due to high levels of mental health need.
  •  The high demand meant some women with severe mental health needs were held in segregation.
  • At one prison only 64% of women requiring admission to a secure mental health hospital were transferred within 28 days of initial referral.
  • The need for prison staff to care for the complex needs of these women has exacerbated staffing shortages.

Dame Anne Owers, National Chair of the IMBs said:

‘It is clear from this report that prisons are still the default setting for many women simply because they are mentally ill, and some of the most seriously ill will be in segregation. For these women, prison is not an appropriate environment and the rates and severity of self-harm are of great concern.

Proposals to prevent anyone being sent to prison for mental health issues are welcome; but it is far from clear that sufficient alternative provision is available. Already we see that deadlines for transferring mentally ill women to more appropriate mental health settings are routinely missed.’