Three women with lived experience of prison are advising the government that women’s prisons are in dire need of trauma councillors, rehabilitation courses and mentors for support inside.
The Ministry of Justice has said the number of women in custody has fallen since 2010 and “millions of pounds is being invested into diversion and rehabilitation services to steer them away from crime”.
But Lucy, Lisa and K argue that if more was done at grassroots level they might not have a criminal record.
Their testimonies laid bare endemic issues that many women in contact with the criminal justice system face before even entering prison.
Namely trauma, domestic abuse, experiences of the care system, insecure housing and employment, unmet mental health needs and substance misuse issues
They spoke on behalf of the Revolving Doors Agency to the Justice Select Committee on their inquiry into women in prison.
‘These women need help’
Lucy, 42, was in care for two years and found herself in prison two days after her 18th birthday.
She has lost five friends to suicide in female-only prisons and says all the women she knew in jail were dealing with historic trauma.
She called for police and prisons to think about life beyond the courtroom.
“There’s so many young women and women my age that are in the system that are broken,” she said.
“They have been seriously abused and ended up going down that spiral and ended up coming under the criminal justice system.
“A lot of women had suffered domestic violence, social services had taken children away from their home where the kids all loved but they’ve had problems - and it’s broken them.”
‘Prison was a wasted opportunity for me’
Another former inmate, Lisa, said at the time she got sent to prison she was quite relieved she got away from her life.
She was an intravenous drug user on heroin and crack cocaine with an escalating addiction.
She said: “I thought ‘thank God I’ve been given the opportunity to be removed from my life’ and possibly have this period of time to be away from that and I had every determination to get my life back together.”
She found herself getting caught up in heavier crimes and meeting dangerous people before being inside for 18 months.
She added: “I stand by the fact that [prison] was an extremely wasted opportunity for me, in my experience, there was no intervention.
“I was moved to four different prisons. Every time I almost got on a certain course or potentially something that was going to help me, I got moved.
“When I eventually came off my Subutex to try and help me detox, my mental health got so crazy I was quite suicidal and I was begging for mental health support and I had to go on a long waiting list.”
Subutex is a strong drug used to treat pain and opioid addiction.
Lisa ended up on a mental health waiting list and was offered courses on safer injecting, crack and heroin awareness courses, or the option to go back onto methadone - which she said never helped.
‘A lot of the victims are broken’
Lucy said if more women were given training from the start they would be set up with life skills they don’t have.
She said the punishment of prison is still ongoing as it stops adoption and restricts travelling, which could have been avoided with a community sentence.
She added: “A lot of the women that are in prison don’t have the basic life skills that some people have and without them [sic] basic life skills and the knowledge you can’t survive.
“Talking therapy is one of the best things you can do.
“I think if the prison set up peer mentors or people with lived experiences to be doing these things with the women, I think the women would open up more because they would know these people have been through similar or same stuff so they can relate to them and they know they are not someone in the system.
She added: “The suicide rates in female prisons are horrendous, I myself lost five people before I came out.”
A ‘Women’s Estate Self Harm Task Force’ was set up in April 2020 to help reduce levels of self-harm.
However, latest Ministry of Justice data shows that self harm incidents are 6.3 times more likely in female prisons than male ones - with 11,988 incidents recorded between December 2019 and 2020.
Lucy said women should have proper psychiatric assessment before going to jail.
“A lot of them are victims that are broken, they’ve gone through a number of different abuses, if not all of them - it’s like the lost generation.”
“If only they had structured courses to set them up, give them some tools to go forward, survive and grow and make their life positive - I was nearly dead and I turned my life around and I’m never looking back.”
‘People just want to be heard’
Another witness with lived experience, K, said there were times in prison she had to save other prisoner’s lives - and “received no rehabilitation”.
She said: “I worked with young offenders there who did not know if they were coming or going.
“All they wanted to do was to sit down and speak to someone from the moment they stepped into that prison until the moment they were leaving they had me by their sides.
“A mentor who has experienced something similar to what these people are experiencing, whether it is a female or a male prisoner, a mentor is highly important, someone who can sit down and actually listen because a lot of people just want to be heard.”
‘Prison has largely failed their needs’
A spokesperson from Revolving Doors Agency said: “It is clear from their stories that prison has largely failed to meet their needs – which often could have been better met in the community.
“Instead, they have experienced a lack of support, negative encounters with prison staff, and have been further traumatised by their imprisonment.
“When women are released from prison, they receive insufficient ‘through-the-gate support’ – setting them up to fail and contributing to a revolving door of crisis and crime.
“Revolving Doors’ lived experience members make it clear that to break this cycle, and reduce unnecessary imprisonment, women need peer mentoring, trauma-informed support, and access to services in the community.”