According to experts, the reasons prisons are failing women particularly badly are complex. More women enter prison with pre-existing mental health conditions than men, because women without mental illnesses are less likely to offend, said Maureen Mansfield, who works for the charity Women in Prison."There are people in prison who should not be in prison, they should be in hospital," she said.
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On occasion, Maria said, self-harming even became an explicit form of protest against neglect by guards.
I walked out [of prison] with nothing. I was just devastated. I had literally nothing except what I was standing up in.
Watch: Crowning Miss Max: Inside Brazil's Biggest Prison Beauty PageantShortly before she went to prison, the police took the van she had been living in as evidence and then gave it to her ex-husband with all her possessions inside, including legal documents, her passport, and her driving licence."I walked out [of prison] with nothing," she told me. "I was just devastated. I had literally nothing except what I was standing up in."In April, it was revealed that other women released from HMP Bronzefield, where Linda was held, were given tents and sleeping bags because staff knew they had nowhere else to go.Linda spent eight months in custody awaiting trial. She was punished for staging a protest against her incarceration. She refused to eat, or to co-operate with staff, so they denied her access to 'luxuries' like books. One guard even refused her sanitary towels.
Linda said some aspects of prison were particularly distressing to her and others. "A lot of women, their whole lives they've had to put up with coercive behaviour from men, so [it's extremely damaging to them] having to experience that again," she said.Bennett agreed. "Women who have been attacked or sexually violated can re-experience that in prison by being restrained, or locked up, or pushed around by male guards," she said.She added that staff need more training in dealing with mental health problems and self-harming behaviours, which she said are poorly understood and take many different forms—including refusing food, which is often not noticed.
"Staff who are not trained in self-harm often start making inappropriate remarks like 'serves you right because you did it,'" Bennett said.When asked about this, a Prison Service spokesperson said: "Our hard-working prison staff provide vital support to prisoners with mental health issues every day and last year we invested in specialist mental health training for officers."They added the safety and welfare of prisoners is a vital part of reform plans, and emphasized their commitment to "making sure our prisons are safe and are places of rehabilitation."Bennett and Mansfield agreed the best mental health team worked in Holloway prison, which was one of the oldest facilities in the UK and the largest women's prison in Western Europe.Holloway was shut down in July, in what the Ministry of Justice branded a move to improve prisons, and to hold women in smaller and more modern facilities.Mansfield is sceptical of the stated motive. "What the government were suggesting—which was that Holloway prison was not fit for purpose and the women would be better in Downview [a women's prison in Surrey]—was probably more to do with the value of the land," she said.
Staff who are not trained in self-harm often start making inappropriate remarks like 'serves you right because you did it.'
The prison site in Islington, north London, which is publicly owned, has been put on the market for sale to a private investor. The value of the land is estimated to be £200 million, with a potential redevelopment value of £2.25 billion.