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Mentally ill women ‘kept in prison for weeks’ before hospital beds were found, Commons hears

18 October 2019

Prison governor tells MPs of the challenges of prison life

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THE stories of two acutely mentally ill women, kept in prison for weeks before hospital beds were found for them, were told by a prison governor addressing a House of Commons reception this week.

“I joined the service in order to be able to keep safe the community from people that they needed to be kept safe from,” Gabrielle Lee, the governor at HM Prison Low Newton, home to 350 women prisoners, said on Tuesday. “I am not convinced that that is the role I am currently being asked to do.”

Held during Prisoners Week, the reception was convened to highlight the importance of finding suitable accommodation for women released from prison. It was hosted by the Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, and the Bishop of Newcastle, the Rt Revd Christine Hardman.

Ms Lee, whose prison was rated “excellent” by the Chief Inspector of Prisons last year, described how many of the inmates admitted repeatedly on short sentences talked about prison “as a place of sanctuary as opposed to a place of sanction”. It was a place off the streets, where they could have a room of their own. She had used discretionary funding to pay for extra chaplaincy, family engagement workers, and sexual-abuse counselling (“none of these are highest priorities for the national prison service”)

The challenges were numerous: it was 187 miles to the nearest hospital that could admit prison residents; there was no funding for sanitary products; and protective equipment for staff was designed for men, not women. Two thirds of inmates were primary carers for children, 95 per cent of whom would end up sleeping in a different bed while their mother was in custody.

She described how women who were seriously mentally ill were being sent to custody “as a place of safety”. In August, the prison had taken in two women who were “completely disorientated, incoherent, extremely angry, extremely violent”. It had taken four weeks for a psychiatrist to confirm that they were mentally ill, and then five and six weeks to find them a bed. During that time they were in a segregated unit, screaming at each other and at staff.

“If these women had been related to you, you wouldn’t have been happy with the conditions we were keeping them in,” she said. “The work I was asking those officers to do was not morally acceptable.”

She warned of “the implications of applying solutions for men as norms for women . . . We appear to be using the least effective, most expensive process, which is very likely to have a damaging effect to most of the people in our care.”

The reception also heard from Rachel, who, after an eight-year relationship with a violent man, had been drawn into his drug-dealing, eventually serving two years for supplying Class A drugs. “Terrified” on entering prison, she had been separated from her daughter, and, on her release, had initially had to share a single bed with her at her parents’ house, having been unable to meet the council’s demand that she find a two-bedroom property for £510 a month.

Housing was eventually found in a property provided by the diocese of Gloucester, working with the Re-Unite project run by the Nelson Trust (News, 3 February 2017). She now has a full-time job, and an “amazing relationship” with her daughter.

Concluding the speeches, the Second Estates Commissioner, Dame Caroline Spelman MP, said that it was right to “divert women from custody where possible”, and noted the harm caused by separating mothers from their children. “We have known for a very long time . . . that we aren’t doing this right, and we are not doing it well enough,” she said.

It is now 13 years since Baroness Jean Corston — present at the reception — published a review of vulnerable women in the criminal justice system, warning that the effects on the children of women sent to prison were “often nothing short of catastrophic”, and that “the nature of women’s custody in many of our prisons needs to be radically rethought”.

The Government’s Female Offender Strategy, published in June, included a commitment to reducing the number of women serving short custodial sentences. It noted that 60 per cent of female offenders had experienced domestic abuse.

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