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The Prison Rules 1999 provide the regulatory framework for the treatment of prisoners in England and Wales for the ‘regulation and management of prisons…and for the classification, treatment, employment, discipline and control of persons required to be detained therein.’ The only Rules that apply specifically to women are those which state that women should normally be kept separate from men in prison (though several prisons now accommodate men and women in separate sections) and that there should be provision for some women to have their babies with them in prison (currently there are about 90 places for mothers with babies).

Summary of institutions and regimes

Prisons in England and Wales are run by HM Prison Service, an agency of the Home Office. The agency itself is run by a Prisons Board, chaired by the Director General. Until Spring 2004 there was a Women’s Policy Group within the Prison Service and in 2001, the Government produced a strategy document for women offenders. There are 138 prisons in England and Wales. There are approximately 21 prisons which hold women and about 12 of these are designated ‘female establishments’ (that is, holding only women). (At the time of writing, the numbers are constantly changing as new prisons are opening and others are closing, changing function or being listed for closure e.g. in late July it was announced that the closure of several women’s prison is planned, but that they will replaced by several smaller units.)

Male prisoners are given security categories demanding varying degrees of security inside the perimeter. Female prisoners are not categorised in the same way. They are classed as being 'suitable' for 'closed' or 'open' conditions. Most women's prisons are 'closed' and are comparable to Category C male prisons. There are now only two fully 'open' women's prisons and there are two 'semi-open' prisons which have secure perimeters but more relaxed security regimes inside.

Foreign Nationals Foreign nationals represent 10% of prisoners in England and Wales but 19% of female prisoners. Of these, the majority of women have committed drug-related crimes and are subject to the same prison legislation as British nationals. Half of the foreign national women in prison are from Caribbean countries. Most are subject to deportation on completion of their prison sentence. The remainder are asylum-seekers or have been detained under the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, for breaking immigration rules.

Prison accountability The Prison Reform Trust, an NGO, provides prisoners with an information book which informs them of their rights and what to expect while they are in prison. This is approved and distributed by the Prison Service. There is a separate book for women prisoners, which is available on the Prison Service website (www.hmprisonservice.gov.uk).

The Chief Inspector’s Office was set up in 1980 and its remit is to inspect and report on prisons to the Home Secretary. Holders of the post have adopted a high political profile and have, over the years, made controversial reports. Over the years the Inspectorate has developed criteria by which to measure the conditions in prisons and these have become known as indicators of a ‘healthy prison’:

  • Every prisoner is safe

  • Every prisoner is treated with respect as a fellow human being


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