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22 November 2021

Long sentenced women “invisible” in prison policy and practice

Most women received into prison are serving short prison sentences of less than 12 months. However, the small minority serving very long determinate or indeterminate sentences are often overlooked in advocacy debates and policy, meaning their experiences are not fully recognised, a new briefing released today by the Prison Reform Trust has revealed.

“I’d never experienced self-harm until I went to prison, then I saw it on a massive scale…It’s not something I’d seen before, I’d not seen people cut, walking down the landing and they’re cut to the bone.”

Key findings

The briefing has been produced in collaboration with 16 women serving indeterminate sentences as part of the Prison Reform Trust’s Building Futures programme, a five-year project funded by the National Lottery Community Fund to explore the experiences of people who will spend 10 or more years in custody. It is the first in a series which will aim to shed light on the distinct experiences of these often ‘invisible women’ serving long determinate and indeterminate sentences.

Whilst women serving an indeterminate sentence continue to be a small minority of the total population of women in prison, the number has grown from 96 in 1991, to 328 in 2021. As a proportion of the women’s population, women serving indeterminate sentences declined overall from 6% to 4% between 1991 and 2005, before nearly doubling from 6% to 10% between 2005 and 2013 and remaining roughly consistent since then. For anyone serving an indeterminate sentence, the pains of imprisonment are exacerbated by the uncertainty and powerlessness which can commonly come to define their time in prison.

This briefing highlights the far-reaching consequences of a lack of specialist, gender-specific, trauma informed provision for these women. Most women serving long prison sentences will have extensive histories of trauma and are often victims as well as perpetrators. In a study of women serving life sentences, 60% reported histories of sexual abuse, 80% had experienced physical abuse and 54% reported both sexual and physical abuse. Women lacking specialist support can feel isolated in their trauma; those serving long sentences are more exposed to repeat traumatisation.

One woman spoke of her experience:

“Prisons need to be more trauma-informed. Staff need to be trauma-trained. In my time in prison…I’d wake up in the morning and I’d be totally happy, then I’d go into group therapy and come out suicidal because other people’s trauma would trigger my trauma and you’re just left to sit with it.”

Another woman spoke about the impact of other women self-harming in prison:

“I’d never experienced self-harm until I went to prison, then I saw it on a massive scale…It’s not something I’d seen before, I’d not seen people cut, walking down the landing and they’re cut to the bone.”

A key theme of the briefing was how the lack of specific provision for women serving long sentences also further impacts a woman’s ability to maintain family contact. Women often have to transfer to different prisons during their sentences in order to access specialist interventions to meet the targets set in their sentence plans. However, this often means relocating to a prison further away from home and loved ones. One woman spoke about her experience:

“Transfers to other prisons are extremely traumatic not just for us but for our families and friends. We are often moved many miles away, which causes visiting problems due to transport, ill health and financial problems.”

Another woman said:

“I saw my mum about four times in 14 years. I saw my son twice. I saw my sister about four times and I saw my dad more. When I went to another prison I was about 200 miles away from home so my dad only came once at Christmas”

The lack of gender specific provision was also raised as an issue by women, with many undertaking offending behaviour programmes originally designed for men. These programmes may not adequately acknowledge trauma histories or experiences of abuse, meaning they could be ineffective or even harmful. One woman said:

“We feel it is still such a male orientated environment…I feel personally that we as women are not listened to.” 

This briefing provides an introduction to The Prison Reform Trust’s work with women serving long sentences, which will build from the ground up to provide opportunities for women to collaborate and advocate for more holistic, gender-specific, trauma-informed approaches to the long-term imprisonment of women.

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

“Women serving very long sentences should not be an afterthought. More must be done to recognise and understand the distinct needs of these women in order to mitigate the unnecessary harms associated with long-term imprisonment.

“This collaborative work with women serving these very long prison sentences will amplify their voices, in order to push for better gender-specific, trauma informed interventions for women serving long sentences.”

I spent 14 years in prison for killing my partner – the system isn’t working for women

In this article for inews, a Building Futures Network member who took part in our research for Invisible Women shares her experience of serving a life sentence.

Read the article