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Dedicated social workers in women’s prisons could tackle record levels of self-harm

New research finds investing in dedicated staff to keep mothers in touch with their children would help to tackle spiralling levels of self-harm in women's prisons.

13/03/24

Dedicated social workers in women’s prisons could tackle record levels of self-harm

All women's prisons should have social workers dedicated to supporting mothers in custody to stay in touch with their children, where it is in the child's best interests, according to the charity Pact (the Prison Advice and Care Trust).

Ministry of Justice statistics show there are more than 3,000 women currently in prison, and it's estimated that 17,000 children are affected by maternal imprisonment every year. 95% of children are forced to leave home when their mother goes to prison as they have no other adult to take care of them.

“We're giving the mothers a chance to be there for their children and to show their children that they still have parents who love them and will do everything for them from prison,” one social worker placed in HMP Send, said. “It's about giving women hope for the future and their children the opportunity to have a relationship with their mother where that's appropriate."

The call coincides with the publication of an independent evaluation report by Cardiff University of a pilot project which employs dedicated, prison-based social workers in two women's prisons - HMPs Send and Eastwood Park.

Researchers found the project benefitted children and mothers by playing a ‘significant role’ in managing self-harm and the risk of suicide.

There were nearly 20,000 incidents of self-harm in women's prisons last year – the highest on record. The rate of self-harm per 1,000 prisoners in women's prisons increased by 38% on the previous year and is over ten times higher than in men's prisons.

The evaluation showed that even where it is decided that mothers should not have contact with their children, the social workers support the women, helping them to come to terms with this, minimising the risk of self-harm and suicide.

Andy Keen-Downs, Pact CEO, said prison-based social workers help to ‘bridge the gap’ between mothers in prison and their children on the outside.

"Separation from children is one of the major factors driving the deeply worrying levels of self-harm in women's prisons. Supporting everyone through the process helps to keep the women safe, reduces the likelihood they will reoffend on release and benefits the children on the outside."


The pilot project in HMPs Send and Eastwood Park followed Lord Farmer's landmark review in 2019 about the importance of maintaining family ties in women's prisons. The report recommended that the Ministry of Justice fund on-site social workers as part of a multi-disciplinary team within each prison.

Mr Keen-Downs continued: "It's been over four years since a Government-commissioned review recommended that every women's prison should have dedicated social workers. We have the evidence that it works - now it's time for Ministers to invest in this simple, common-sense measure."

Two-thirds of women (69%) entering prison to serve a sentence have committed a non-violent offence and almost two-thirds of women in prison are reported to be survivors of domestic abuse. Half report having experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse as a child.

Professor Alyson Rees from Cardiff University who worked on the research said ,others often have either an “antagonistic or non-existent relationship with social workers in the community.”

“Social workers in the community often do not know where mothers are imprisoned or how to contact them. By having a qualified social worker in the prison, this provided a point of contact who was able to support mothers, children, community social workers and help advise prison staff.”

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