Skip to main content

Women’s prisons: Safety, self-harm and support

Charlie Taylor

In this guest blog, Chief Inspector of Prisons Charlie Taylor discusses a troubling inspection report which found poor safety for the women at HMP Foston Hall. The Chief Inspector also discusses a new briefing which pulls together findings from recent inspections across five women’s prisons, revealing high levels of self-harm but some positive initiatives to support women.

Foston Hall is a women’s prison which accommodates several categories of prisoner ranging from those recently remanded or at the beginning of their sentences to women serving indeterminate sentences, including life, for very serious crimes.

At our last inspection in 2019, we found outcomes to be reasonably good against all healthy prison tests. A recent inspection proved less positive and we found a deterioration in the regime and the provision of purposeful activity. Of greater concern, however, were the safety outcomes which we judged to be poor, our lowest assessment. This is the first time we have given this judgement for safety in a woman’s prison since the Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons developed its current healthy prison assessment framework more than a decade ago.

Recorded levels of self-harm were the highest in the women’s estate, and two women had taken their own lives since we last inspected, yet there was no strategy to reduce self-harm or improve the care for those in crisis. The majority of women who harmed themselves did not have enough support or activity and faced daily frustration in getting the help they needed. Messages left on the prison’s crisis hotline had not been checked in six weeks and women were making 1,000 calls each month to the Samaritans.

Violence was also very high, and in response to our survey 30 percent of women said that they felt unsafe at the time of our inspection. Incidences of violence against staff had increased significantly and much of this was caused by frustrations with the inconsistent regime and difficulties in getting things done. In addition, while the prison was near to being fully staffed at the time of our visit, nearly a third of frontline officers were non-effective and non-deployable, which undermined work to improve the establishment.

It was clear to us that Foston Hall needed to do much better, and that leaders need to reconsider their priorities and focus on making the prison safer and meeting the needs of the most vulnerable women.

Foston Hall’s inspection report is accompanied by a briefing paper identifying key findings in the inspection of five women’s prisons – Low Newton, Styal, Send, Downview and Foston Hall – in the last six months. The paper raises serious concerns about high rates of self-harm and vulnerability across the women’s prison estate.

More positively, the paper identifies some examples of good practice in relation to the care of vulnerable women that contrast with the Foston Hall report. Examples of a ‘whole prison’ approach to supporting women was identified at Styal, where all departments, not just the safer custody team, showed a commitment to working with women individually to respond to their risks and needs. Care was enhanced by individual psychological work, day-to-day action plans for wing staff and importantly, involvement in meaningful employment, education or training.

At Send, further support was provided to women who were likely to be more vulnerable and to self-harm at weekends, when there were fewer activities and less time out of cell. A weekly meeting reviewed the risks and set out simple steps to help the woman reduce them.

The paper also comments on the impact of positive working relationships on outcomes for women and the importance of accessing comprehensive resettlement help and support.

For more information:

  • The Foston Hall inspection report can be found here.
  • The briefing paper on women’s prisons can be found here.