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For further statistics and the sources for these figures see The Prison Reform Trust's Bromley Briefings Prison Factfile full version or Summer 2013 short version.
Also see the Ministry of Justice's "Section 95" Statistics on Women and the Criminal Justice System and the Ministry of Justice's Safety in Custody statistics
Women’s prison population
  • Women represent around 5% of the overall prison population in the the UK.
  • The number of women in prison in England and Wales stood at 3, 952 on 11 October 2013.
  • A total of 9,832 women were received into custody in 2012.
  • Women accounted for 9% of all prison receptions in the 12 months leading up to March 2013.
  • Between 1995 and 2010 the female prison population increased with 115%.
  • Most of the rise in the female prison population can be explained by a significant increase in the severity of sentences. In 1996, 10% of women convicted of an indictable offence were sent to prison, in 2010 14% were.
Women prisoner backgrounds
  • Over half of women in prison report having suffered domestic violence.
  • One in three women in prison report having suffered sexual abuse.
  • 53% of women in prison report having experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse during childhood.
  • 19% of women were not in permanent accommodation before entering custody and 10% of women were sleeping rough.
  • 31% women in prison have spent time in local authority care as a child.
  • Nearly 40% of women in prison left school before the age of 16 years, almost one in 10 were aged 13 or younger.
  • 30% of women were permanently excluded from school.
Custodial sentences and previous convictions

  • The majority of women sentenced to prison (81%) have committed a non-violent offence. 
  • Women serve shorter prison sentences than men and for less serious offences. In the 12 months ending March 2013, 59% of women entering prison under sentence served sentences of up to and including six months.
  • Theft and handling was by far the most common offence, accounting for 38% of all sentenced women in the year leading up to March 2013.
  • 26% of women in prison had no previous convictions – more than double the figure for men (12%).
  • 28% of women serving sentences of under 12 months had no previous convictions, compared with only 12% of men.
Women prisoners, mental health and self-harm 
  • Women account for a disproportionate amount of self-harm in prison; depite making up only 5% of the population, women account for 28% of self-harm incidents.
  • Women in custody are five times more likely to have a mental health concern than women in the general population.
  • 30% of women (as compared to 10% of men) have had a previous psychiatric admission before they come into prison.
  • Of all the women who are sent to prison, 46% say they have attempted suicide at some time in their life. 51% have severe and enduring mental illness, 47% have a major depressive disorder, 6% have a psychosis and 3% have schizophrenia.
  • 83% of women in prison stated that they had long-standing illness, compared with 32% of the general female population. 73% were on medication on arrival at prison – mainly benzodiazepines (42%), methadone (36%), antidepressants (14%), and sleeping pills (10%).
  • Women prisoners are subject to higher rates of disciplinary proceedings than men. According to the Ministry of Justice, “women may be less able (due for example to mental health issues) to conform to prison rules.”

Deaths in custody

  • In the year leading up to March 2013, six women died in custody. 
  • There were 94 self-inflicted deaths of women prisoners between 1990 and 2012.
  • Approximately 30% of prisoners who take their own lives had no family contact prior to their deaths.

Women prisoners, drugs and alcohol

  • In 2010, 24% of women in prison were serving sentences for drug offences.
  • Prior to imprisonment, 85% of women were smokers, 75% had used illegal drugs and 40% drank alcohol in excess of the recommended limits.
  • 52% of women surveyed said that they had used heroin, crack, or cocaine in the four weeks prior to custody. However, practitioners report that women may hide or underplay substance misuse through fear of losing their children.
Imprisoned mothers and their children
  • It is estimated that more than 17,240 children were separated from their mothers in 2010 by imprisonment.
  • Only 9% of children whose mothers are in prison are cared for by their fathers in their mothers' absence.
  • At least a fifth of women prisoners are lone parents before imprisonment, compared to 9% of the general population.
  • It is estimated that four out of 10 young women in prison are mothers.
  • Only half of the women who had lived with or were in contact with their children prior to imprisonment had received a visit since going to prison.
  • Maintaining contact with children is made more difficult by the distance that many prisoners are held from their home area. This is particularly acute for women given the limited number of women’s prisons; the average distance from home is 60 miles for women; in 2009 753 women were held over 100 miles from home.
  • One Home Office study showed that for 85% of mothers, prison was the first time they had been separated from their children for any significant length of period.
  • Imprisoning mothers for non-violent offences has a damaging impact on children and carries a cost to the state of more than £17 million over a ten year period.

 On release

  • Around one-third of women prisoners lose their homes, and often their possessions, while in prison.
  • A Prisons Inspectorate survey found that 38% of women in prison did not have             accommodation arranged on release.
Reconviction and reoffending
  • Almost half of women leaving prison are reconvicted within one year – for those serving sentences of less than 12 months this increases to 62%. For those women who have served more than 11 previous custodial sentences the reoffending rate rises to 75%.
  • 58% of women identified unemployment and lack of skills as problems contributing to their offending.
 Community Solutions
  • In 2011 a higher proportion of women than men completed their community sentence successfully or had their sentences terminated for good progress on both community orders (70%) and suspended sentence orders (76%) versus 65 and 67% respectively for men.
  • A report by NEF has found that for every £1 invested in support-focused alternatives to prison, £14 worth of social value is generated to women and their children, victims and society over ten years.
 Women on remand
  • Women on remand make up 16% of the female prison population.
  • Women on remand spend an average of four to six weeks in prison.
  • 56% of women remanded into prison do not go on to receive a custodial sentence.
  • In the twelve months leading up to March 2013, 3,631 women entered prison on remand awaiting trial.
Indeterminate sentences for Public Protection (IPP)
  • In June 2012 there were 131 women in prison serving IPP sentences.
  • Nearly 80% of IPP sentences for women were for offences of arson, which is often an indicator of serious mental illness or self-harm.

Foreign national women

  • Foreign nationals make up 15% of the women’s prison population.
  • 46% of foreign national women in prison are serving a custodial sentence for drug offences, compared to 21% of women of British nationality. Women imprisoned for drugs importation are largely from Nigeria, Jamaica and South Africa.
  • 16% of foreign national women imprisoned are there for fraud and forgery offences (usually possession of false documents).
  • Some foreign national women in prison are known to have been coerced or traficked into offending.

Last updated: October 2013

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