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Female Prisoners

There are 14 women's prisons in England. There are none in Wales. Female young adult offenders are held in dedicated young adult units, and there are currently 4 purpose built female juvenile units. There are 7 mother and baby units.

The last ten years or so have seen a dramatic rise in the numbers of women in prison from an average of 1560 in 1993 to around 4463 in June 2006. An all time high of 4672 was reached in May 2004. Despite this rise in numbers, women in prison represent a very small proportion of the total prison population at about 5.7% of a total of 77982 in England and Wales as at June 2006.

Life in prison for women follows similar procedures to those for male prisoners. There are, however, a number of important differences in women's offending behaviour and their needs whilst in prison. These are explained in more detail below.

Characteristics of the female prison population


Women tend to commit less crime and their offences are generally less serious. In 2006, 33% of sentenced women had committed drugs offences; 19% were convicted of violence against the person; 12% for theft & handling and 9% for robbery.

Foreign Nationals

About 21% of the women in prison are foreign nationals compared to about 14% in the male estate.

Ethnic Minorities

As at 30 June 2006, 28% of the prisoners in the women's estate were from ethnic minorities in comparison to around 27% of prisoners in the male estate.


Women tend to have a different type of drug use from men with higher levels of hard drug use.


Women are normally the Primary Carers for elderly relatives and children. Around 55% of women in prison have a child under 16, 33% a child under 5 and 20% are lone parents.

Distance from home

Because of the relatively small number of women's prisons, and due to their geographical location, women tend to serve their sentences further from their homes than male prisoners. This can place additional pressure on important links with family.

Mental health

Up to 80% of women in prison have diagnosable mental health problems, with 66% having symptoms of neurotic disorders (anxiety, poor sleeping). The comparable figure in the community is less than 20%.

Experience of abuse

Up to 50% of women in prison report having experienced physical, emotional or sexual abuse.

If you are worried about someone in Prison there are many Health and Councelling support groups that offer support and advice.

Self-inflicted deaths

Annual numbers of self-inflicted deaths are not easy to predict. Figures show there have been more female deaths than expected, given their proportion of the prison population; however recent figures buck this trend. So far up to 1 May 2008 there has been 1 female death in custody. In 2007 there were 8 such deaths and 3 in 2006 (which is the lowest number since 1998).


The incidence of self-injury among women in prison is significantly high, given that they make up roughly 6% of the prison population. Since 2003, approximately 30% of female prisoners self-injured each year (compared to 6% of males). These prisoners make up roughly one quarter of all prisoners who self-injure and contributed approximately half of all incidents. These proportions are higher for young offenders.

If you are concerned about someone in Prison harming themselves, you can get advice and further information in the Self-Harm section of this website.


Women generally present much lower risks than men. Women's prisons do not experience as many serious incidents, although the rate of adjudications is higher.


Whilst for men the first priority is getting employment, for women accommodation normally ranks higher.

These characteristics present particular needs and the Service is responding to each of them.

Management of women's prisons

Since 1 April 2004 Area Managers have managed those prisons within their geographical areas along with the male prisons in those areas. The specialist knowledge of the Women's Estate has been preserved in the Women & Young People's Group, which provides Area Managers with specialist expertise and support. The Head of the Women & Young People's Group reports to the Director of Commissioning & Operational Policy.

Women prisoners' health

The specialist medical services provided for the women are the same as those that you would expect outside prison, including breast and cervical screening, family planning and sexual health services. Unfortunately, prisoners have often neglected their health whilst in the community and there is a high demand for the services. There is also high demand for drug and mental health services.

Pregnant women

Every woman who is known to be pregnant will be consistently medically assessed and monitored, just as in the community. She may be located in a particular area of the prison dedicated to pregnant women, if the prison in question has such a facility and it is thought necessary for the well being of the mother-to-be and the unborn child. Support will be provided according to individual need. Medical care is given by the local NHS maternity services and mothers give birth in a hospital with the appropriate facilities, local to the prison.

Mother and Baby Units

There are currently seven Mother and Baby Units. Two, New Hall and Holloway, keep babies with their mothers up to the age of 9 months. Bronzefield, Peterborough, Styal, Eastwood Park and Askham Grange accommodate babies with their mothers up to the age of 18 months. Askham Grange is the only open prison with a Mother and Baby Unit. Each application for admission is assessed on an individual basis by a multi-disciplinary-team, whose focus will be the best interests of the child. Every women's prison has an appointed Mother and Baby Liaison Officer, who offers help and advice to applicants. Further information can be obtained from Prison Service Order 4801 Edition 3.

Children visiting prisons

Children are allowed to visit their mothers in prison in the same way as other visitors. In some instances, prisoners are allowed extended, more relaxed visits with their children or can get permission to visit their children where they are living.

If a friend, who would not normally qualify for travelling expenses from the Assisted Prisons Visits Unit, brings the children to the prisoner, then they would be able to have their travel expenses reimbursed.

Recent Key Development in the Women Estate

Prison Service Order (PSO) 4800 Women Prisoners

Against the background of the new gender duty, the National Offender Management Service have developed a set of gender specific standards for the women's prisons, drawing from existing best practice. The standards were published on 28 April 2008 in a new Prison Service Order (4800) on Women Prisoners and are due to be implemented in April 2009. They cover all areas of regime provision and should enhance the significant improvements that have already been achieved in the care and management of women prisoners and planning for their resettlement.

Establishments in the Prison Service Women Estate

Askham Grange

Drake Hall
East Sutton Park
Eastwood Park
Foston Hall
Morton Hall
Low Newton
New Hall


Related Documents

Prisoners' Information Book (female) Prisoners' Information Book (female) (473 KB)
Working with Women Prisoners Working with Women Prisoners (263 KB)
Female Prionsers

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