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15 February 2023

Health needs of women serving long prison sentences neglected

Women serving very long sentences feel that their health needs are being overlooked, a new briefing released today by the Prison Reform Trust has revealed.

Whilst the majority of women entering prison are serving short sentences, there is a small minority serving very long sentences. For instance, 372 of the 2,456 sentenced women in prison are serving indeterminate sentences. The briefing was produced in collaboration with women who will spend at least eight years in prison, across working groups in three women’s prisons. These groups are part of a wider ‘Building Futures Network’ of over 60 women with lived experience of long-term imprisonment.

The briefing highlights the key themes raised by the women: maintaining hope, access to healthcare, and staff-prisoner relationships.

In relation to health specifically, many of the women spoke about the lack of specialist support and help available to meet the health needs of long-sentenced women. Many raised concerns about diet, access to exercise and the potential for long-term health problems to go untreated.

For some of the women, the constant worry of health issues felt like a secondary form of punishment, with many seriously concerned about whether they would be healthy, able-bodied, or still alive by the time they are due to be released.

One woman spoke of her experience:

“We are imprisoned as punishment. Our liberty is taken as the form of punishment. I don’t remember the judge saying ‘oh and by the time you leave you will either be morbidly obese, suffering serious health problems, osteoporosis, diabetes or a combination of some or all due to the appalling diet you will be forced to eat!'”


Another woman said:

“They just don’t care. It’s like they are quickening my death.”


The briefing provides clear recommendations, including for HMPPS to adhere to expectations set out by Public Health England in their ‘Gender specific standards for health and wellbeing for women in prison in England’. The report also recommends governors of women’s prisons prioritise women-specific health issues, and, where possible, involve women who are in prison in developing resources.

This briefing is the second in a series of ‘Invisible Women’ briefings. The briefings are part of the Prison Reform Trust’s Building Futures programme, a five-year project funded by the National Lottery Community Fund to explore the distinct experiences of people serving very long sentences in prison.

The first briefing introduced the Prison Reform Trust’s work with women serving long sentences. These often ‘invisible women’ are a minority within a minority and their needs will often differ from the wider population. The briefing highlighted the far-reaching consequences of a lack of specialist, gender specific, trauma informed provision for this group.

Commenting, Dr David Maguire, director of the Prison Reform Trust’s Building Futures programme said:

“Long sentenced women should not be an afterthought. Many of the women we spoke to said that their health needs are being neglected to a worrying degree. The prison service should better recognise the needs of this group, and make sure that the necessary resources are in place for those needs to be met.”

* All names have been changed to protect the identity of contributors.