UK : the hidden mental health crisis in women’s prisons

From self-harming in groups to starvation and self-immolation, women are overwhelmingly more likely than men to hurt themselves while incarcerated. So why isn’t the prison system responding?
Maria, 29, is a disability rights activist who uses a wheelchair. She also has borderline personality disorder and a history of self-harm. In 2013, she was convicted of an antisocial behavior charge, and sentenced to time in prison.

I was in Holloway for ten months,” she said. “I went through lots of self-harm episodes there, including setting myself on fire and trying to hang myself.

Penny Bennett, a charity caseworker who supported her, said Maria frequently used a dressing gown robe or socks to form a ligature, which she left hanging around her neck. Prison staff took it off her initially, before realizing that she was not tightening it. Maria said just having it there made her feel better.

Although her mental health was bad when she was sentenced, Maria believes prison made it much worse. “When I came out, I just couldn’t cope at all,” she said. “I was constantly, for maybe a year, being sectioned by police everyday. I was overdosing, cutting, throwing myself under trains. I just think [prison] really messes your head up.”

Recent government statistics show just how damaging prison is for women: despite women constituting only 5 percent of prisoners in the UK, more than 10 percent of the prisoners who killed themselves last year were female. This is in sharp contrast to the population as a whole, where men are 3.5 times more likely to die by suicide than women.

At least 30 percent of women in custody self-harm, according to the same figures, compared to 10 percent of male prisoners. People who work with women in prison say that the actual number could be higher.

And things are getting worse: female deaths in prison classed as “self-inflicted” rose by 1,100 percent last year.

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