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Prison inspector “kept awake” by shameful treatment of women inmates

Nick Hardwick, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons, delivering a lecture on campus in February 2012

The treatment of women prisoners in England and Wales is shameful, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons said in a lecture on the University of Sussex campus yesterday (Wednesday 29 February).

Nick Hardwick said the terrible levels of self-mutilation and despair in one women's unit "kept me awake at night" and the responsibility lies squarely at the door of successive governments.

In a highly-critical lecture – organised by the Sussex Law School - he said the circumstances of the women held in the Keller Unit of Styal Prison in Wilmslow, Cheshire, were "more shocking and distressing than anything I had yet seen on an inspection".

"We can't go on like this," he said.

"Prisons, particularly as they are currently run, are simply the wrong place for so many of the distressed, damaged or disturbed women they hold.

"I think the treatment and conditions in which a small minority of the most disturbed women are held is - in relation to their needs - simply unacceptable.

"I think - I hope - we will look back on how we treated these women in years to come, aghast and ashamed."

He added he wanted to be "clear where responsibility lies".

"It does not lie with the officers, staff and governors on the ground - many of whom are simply humbling in the dedication and care with which they approach their work - or the officials and others trying to improve things in the centre," he said.

"This is a responsibility that lies squarely at the door of successive governments and parliament."

Mr Hardwick was reflecting on the lack of progress in women's prisons since the 2007 Corston Report which outlined "the need for a distinct radically different, visibly-led, strategic, proportionate, holistic, woman-centred, integrated approach".

If men were as repeatedly violent to other prisoners in the way women prisoners were to themselves, it would be treated as "a national responsibility" whereas in the case of women, local prisons were left to manage as best they could, he said.

Women make up only 5% of the total prison population, but account for almost half of all self-harm incidents in prisons, he said.

And he questioned why the only dormitories he had seen were in women's prisons.

"It is a historical legacy I suppose but I suspect that if the same proportion of men were accommodated in dormitories, it would have been treated as a much greater priority," he said.

He added that a "long chain of men", from male wing officers and male governors to male prison chiefs and a male chief inspector, "may not be the best structure to respond to the physical and emotional needs of some very troubled women".

And while East Sutton Park, in Maidstone, Kent, and Askham Grange, in York, were good examples of women's prisons, others were "increasingly becoming multi-functional", taking on new roles "and holding women further away from home".

The speech has received national media coverage in both the Metro and the Independent.

The lecture was part of the ‘Issues in Criminal Justice’ series at Sussex - convened by Professor Stephen Shute, Head of the School of Law, Politics and Sociology, on behalf of the Sussex Law School - and given by leading UK figures including government ministers and senior members of the judiciary. 

Professor Shute said: “In yesterday’s disturbing lecture, Nick Hardwick laid bare some of the unacceptable treatment and conditions still experienced by women prisoners in this country.

“His hard-hitting talk fitted perfectly with the ethos of the Issues in Criminal Justice lecture series, which brings some of the most eminent figures in the UK to Sussex to offer no-holds-barred reflections on how our criminal justice system might be improved.”

Previous high-profile speakers have included the former head of the Metropolitan Police, Lord Blair, and Dominic Grieve, the Attorney General.

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Posted on behalf of: Sussex Law School
Last updated: Thursday, 1 March 2012