Hidden violence: Women in prison

Abigail Darton, Research and Projects Assistant
Tuesday 6th March 2018

When you hear the term prison violence, what do you think?

A punch up over the food counter? Prison Break style riots and crude comments about bars of soap in the shower? Or maybe the gang and drug related assaults and deaths which hit the news?

These are all real concerns affecting the safety and wellbeing of people in prison across the country. But too often these images of physical violence mask another, very real and equally dangerous, form of hidden violence most commonly experienced by women in prison.

The life experiences of women in prison are fundamentally different to those of men:

  • 57% report having been victims of domestic violence (this is likely an underestimate because of fears around reporting)
  • Women in prison are nearly twice as likely as men to be identified as suffering from depression and three times more likely than women in the community
  • 30% had a psychiatric admission prior to entering prison
  • 49% report needing help with a drug problem on entry to prison compared to 29% of men
  • 53% report having experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse as a child, compared to just 27% of men.

In comparison to men in prison, the drug use and/or abuse is more likely to link directly to the offenses that caused women to be in prison. What’s more, 46% of women in prison have attempted suicide at some point in their lives. This is more than twice the rate of men in prison and seven times the rate of women in the community.

Over the past year, we’ve worked in 13 prisons including HMP/YOI Bronzefield, a women’s prison. In contrast to the physical violence in the men’s estate, the conflicts we see when working with women are often internal or psychological, for example low self-worth, the loss of support networks, emotional violence and manipulation between residents, especially those with longer sentences who form relationships, and mental and psychological health needs. These conflicts have been linked to high rates of self-harm.

Women make up just 5% of the UK prison population and are spread across 12 prisons, compared to the 123 prisons that cater for male offenders. As a result, many prison interventions are geared towards meeting the needs of male offenders. A knock-on effect of this is that programmes for women have historically been created as like-for-like copies of those which have worked within the men’s estate.

Given that the needs of women entering prison are often more complex and different in nature to those of men, the consequences of introducing programmes that are direct copies of those for men can be far reaching and hugely damaging. At worst, they may re-trigger traumatic experiences and cause further risk of harm.

Interventions within women’s prisons must be tailored to make sure that they address the unique experiences of women, keep them safe and address the underlying causes of their offending behaviour. They must address internal and psychological conflict, as opposed to just the external and physical conflicts which frequently occur in the men’s estate and have become the picture of prison violence. Considering the high numbers of women who have experienced abuse, it’s crucial that interventions are trauma informed - aiming to prevent the re-triggering of trauma which could lead to further violent or destructive behavior such self-harm or arguments and fights with prison staff or other residents.

In our new programme launched at HMP/YOI Bronzefield, we aim to support women to better understand and manage conflict. Specifically, this involves addressing two key areas:

  • The intense internal conflict experienced by many women in their first few days of custody which lead to high rates of self-harm
  • The psychological conflict which often occurs between longer term and life-sentenced women as they navigate relationships with each other.

By drawing on our work with young women in the community, we address these issues by supporting women to understand their own relationships to conflict, reflect upon the choices they have in conflict situations, develop ways to identify and manage negative relationships and ultimately find their power as women to become leaders in their own lives.

So as we celebrate International Women’s Day 100 years since some women were first able to vote, let’s not forget about those women who may be celebrating in prison. The violence they experience in prison may hidden, but we mustn’t forget the devastating effects it can have on their lives and we must continue to strive for more effective, women-centred support and interventions.


Women in Prison is leading the 2020 Ambition to reduce the women’s prison population to 2,020 (or fewer) by 2020 - this is roughly half the current number of women in prison. Join their campaign to help make this happen!

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