The brutal treatment of vulnerable women in prison

‘Cruel, inhumane and degrading’ – this is how the Chief Inspector of Prisons described the conditions in which a female prisoner was held in segregation for over five years at HMP Bronzefield. The woman, suffering from mental health problems, was confined to a squalid cell, isolated from human contact and stimulation. The case was reported after an unannounced inspection in 2013 and is all the more disturbing because the inspectors had found her in the same cell during their previous visit in 2010. They warned then that conditions ‘seemed likely to lead to further psychological deterioration and were completely unacceptable’. No prisoner should face these conditions for any length of time, let alone years of such treatment. This is torture at the hands of the prison system.

This is not simply an isolated incident; rather it is an extreme example of the kind of treatment faced by women prisoners in Bronzefield and across the system as a whole. More than 68 women were confined to Bronzefield’s segregation unit in the six months before the inspection, many held at length in conditions described by the report as ‘completely unacceptable’ and ‘psychologically damaging’. Investigations into other prisons show the extent of abuse, with reports littered with cases of brutal treatment, unexplained deaths, forcible strip-searches, mothers denied access to their children, lengthy isolation, inaccessible vital services and a lack of human contact and stimulation. In amongst the various voices that fill the reports and statements, the women themselves are seldom heard.

Prison is no place for vulnerable women

The 2010 Bronzefield inspection was absolutely clear: many women’s needs ‘could simply not be met by the prison’. Yet the same women remain locked away. It is well reported that women in prison are often vulnerable and in need of support; for example a quarter have been in care and over half have suffered emotional, physical or sexual abuse. Women make up around 5% of the prison population yet account for over 50% of the incidents of self-harm. Prison remains the place where women with serious mental health problems or addictions are dumped, sometimes again and again. The needs of these women are absent from the national strategy for prisoners with complex needs, which was created for the larger male population. This is not to suggest that the strategy is remotely adequate for male prisoners, but rather to stress the further difficulties women face within a system so defined by abuse. The consistent failure of the government and private companies to consider the realities for these women is exemplified by the lack of progress made in implementing the recommendations of the 2007 Corston report, which reviewed the treatment of vulnerable women in prison.

Privatising punishment

Private companies are profiting from the incarceration and abuse of women. Bronzefield was the first privately managed women’s prison in England and Wales, with Sodexo Justice Services winning a 25-year contract. Sodexo, originally a French catering company, has made huge profits from bidding for public service contracts around the world. Sodexo ran the infamous first asylum-seeker voucher scheme in Britain, which further impoverished and stigmatised people seeking asylum and which was subsequently dropped after public pressure. It runs private prisons and detention centres internationally, has military contracts and profited from war in Afghanistan. Its ignominious health care record includes wards with dirty walls and bloodied scrubs found in a lift used to transport patient meals.

Bronzefield, which opened in 2004, is also a Private Finance Initiative project, meaning that the corporations that originally built the prison will continue to receive regular payments at inflated rates from public money.

Private profits are increased by reducing access to services. A consistent result of privatisation and part-privatisation in prisons is utterly inadequate health care provision. At the time of the inspection, health care at Bronzefield was commissioned by the NHS, with private companies like Boots and Sodexo profiting from providing services. Inspection reports described provision as ‘shockingly poor’, and the pharmacy service as ‘torturous’. Dental treatment was only offered if a woman had been in ‘pain for three days’. That the majority of women in prison have complex health needs makes the lack of care all the more vicious; 83% of women in prison have a long-standing illness, compared with 32% of women out of prison. 73% were on medication on arrival.

The system is clearly harming women and failing. Between 1995 and 2010, the number of women in prison increased by 115%. As of June 2013, there were 3,853 women in prison, a 7% decrease from the previous year. This still leaves thousands of women unnecessarily imprisoned, many serving short but hugely disruptive sentences for non-violent offences.

Britain has the most privatised prison system in Europe with 15% of places currently run by private companies – a higher percentage than in the US. Private prison costs are higher per place than for public prisons in most categories. As we wrote in FRFI in 2012: ‘Whatever the situation in individual institutions, private involvement in state punishment is never progressive. All the companies currently vying for contracts to take over public sector prisons have a material interest in keeping those prisons open and full, and in lobbying to build yet more prisons, pass more punitive laws and sentence more people to imprisonment.’

As long as unaccountable companies can put their interests and profits before the needs of prisoners for care, health, and community reintegration, women in prison will continue to face abuse and harm at the hands of the system.

Rachel Francis

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 235 October/November 2013


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