In the Media

Women prisoners: self-harm, suicide attempts and the struggle for survival

PUBLISHED February 11, 2012

Campaigners for prison reform, including a retired governor, reveal the horrific suffering of vulnerable female inmates

Clive Chatterton is still haunted by the sights and sounds he remembers from his time as governor of Styal, one of 13 women's jails in England and Wales.

There was the 20-year-old on remand for theft who repeatedly slashed her arms, then attempted to hang herself before setting fire to her body. When taken to hospital, she tried drinking a bottle of toxic disinfectant. Her last failed suicide bid involved swallowing a tampon and drinking water in the hope that the cotton would swell and obstruct her windpipe.

Chatteron, 58, has countless other stories, most of them involving inmates who were so mentally ill he wondered how they had ended up in prison. One woman, convicted of shoplifting, lived in a forest from where she would scavenge food to survive. "There is no other way that I can describe her other than appearing as a frightened wild animal, totally uncommunicative and generally unresponsive," he said.

Now retired, Chatterton admitted being scarred by the experience of running Styal in Cheshire from 2009 unil last October. Self-harming, he observed, was frequently the single element of their lives where the women could exert control.

Rachel Halford, director of campaign group Women in Prison, said: "They have no power, which mirrors their previous experiences of abuse and neglect. As a woman in prison told us: 'Putting the blade in and watching the blood come down is the only time I can control something that's happening in here and stop the pain'."

Campaigners say that incidents of self-harm among women prisoners are increasing. Government statistics reveal 10,446 cases of self-harm during 2009, rising to 12,663 the following year. Analysis by Women in Prison estimates that the figure is likely to rise above 13,000 ? more than 35 a day. There are 4,100 women in prison, only5% of inmates, yet they account for almost half of self-harm incidents. Chatterton estimated that six in 10 of those sent to Styal have a significant mental health problem.

The Keller Unit, where the prison's most troubled women are kept under increased supervision, has only 10 places. It was always full, said Chatterton, who admitted he had developed "growing concerns" over the facilities available for helping the mentally ill.

His disquiet was recently corroborated by the chief inspector of prisons on a visit to Styal.

Nick Hardwick, a former chair of the Independent Police Complaints Commission, found the plight of women inside Keller "more shocking and distressing than anything I have yet seen on an inspection". His report, delivered last year, described prison officers who "often had to use force to remove ligatures from women intent on harming themselves".

The year before Chatterton arrived at the prison, Lisa Marley, 32, who suffered from a personality disorder, was sent to Keller. Within 48 hours, she was found hanged in her cell. The inquest heard the coroner criticise Styal for its care of the mentally ill and cell design with a point to which a ligature could be attached. CCTV showed an officer laughing and joking as Marley, who was awaiting trial for assault, received emergency medical treatment inside the cell where she was found.

One prison source, a frequent visitor to female jails, cited a case last November involving a 19-year-old on remand for nine months for a shoplifting and public order offence. She described an emaciated figure with a mental age of eight. By the time she visited her in jail, the teenager had been on hunger strike for more than a month, surviving on 15 sips of water a day. A constant rota of prison officers was required to avert any attempt to kill herself.

The source added: "It was like talking to a child. For nine months she had been in a cell with no sheets in case she used the linen to hang herself, no books, no TV, no radio, because she would use any item to kill herself. The walls were spattered with blood where she had stood and banged her head repeatedly to try and commit suicide.

"She'd been failed by the education system, the health system and in her mind she had no option but to die. Her parents had visited her just once because she was so far away. She clearly needed to be in hospital, but there were no available beds. In nine months there had been no psychiatric assessment."

A 22-year-old inmate, Emily, described by Julie Marriott, northern manager for Women in Prison, as "very typical", on account of her frequent jail terms and background of parental neglect and abuse by family members, crystallised the reasons why custody offered no solution to so many women.

At the age of 12 Emily was forced by her family to work in a brothel, where she was raped by 10 men a day "before tea time". She escaped on to the streets of Greater Manchester and again became immersed in the often violent underworld of the sex trade.

The average literacy and numeracy level among women in prison, say campaigners, is comparable to a young child at secondary school. For many, prostitution is one of the few guaranteed means of survival.

The short sentences given to such women for often minor offences exasperate those on the frontline. In one two-month period at Styal, Chatterton counted 34 women serving sentences of 12 days or fewer.

Campaigners say their use can not be justified on financial grounds. The average annual cost of a woman's prison place is ?43,000 compared with an intensive community order that costs ?10,000-?15,000 while delivering significantly lower reoffending rates.

"If only 30% of women currently imprisoned for very minor offences were diverted from custody, then the associated financial savings would be huge," Chatterton said. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds