Briefing Paper : Women in prison & release measures during the Covid-19 pandemic

There is grave concern amongst Prison Governors, prison staff, NGOs, academics, families of those both working and living in prisons, that unless and until some prisoners are given either temporary or early release, there will be untold catastrophe within the prison estate. 

There may be reluctance at Government level to implement this due to perceived or real push back from the general public who want a government that is ‘tough on crime’. 

It is important therefore that in these discussions there is an accurate understanding of who is imprisoned, why they are there, and the context for the large numbers of people currently imprisoned in England and Wales. 

The life of every prisoners is important but this briefing paper focuses on women in prison although there is some general information included. I hope to produce briefing papers on other prison populations in due course.

I am indebted to the Prison Reform Trust, Bromley Briefings for some of the data in this briefing, and it is with sadness I note that many of their staff have been furloughed from today due to the pandemic crisis. I hope that this briefing paper represents their work in this area. 

General Overview 

  • Scotland, England and Wales have the highest imprisonment rates in Western Europe (World Prison Brief, Institute for crime and Policy Research, 14 November 2019) 
  • The prison population has risen by 70% in the past 30 years (Ministry of Justice (2019) Offender management statistics: prison population 2019 and population and capacity briefing) yet there is no link between prison population and levels of crime (National Audit Office (2012) Comparing International Criminal Justice Systems, London: National Audit Office)
  • 67% of people in prison have committed a non-violent offence. Almost half of those in prison are sentenced to six months or less (Bromley Briefing, Winter 2019. Prison Reform Trust) 
  • More than one in 10 people in prison are there on remand (without conviction, or unsentenced)– the majority are pre-trial, the rest await sentencing (Ministry of Justice (2019) Table 1.1 Offender management statistics quarterly: April to June 2019). The remand figure for children is 1 in 4 (Ministry of Justice (2019) Table 6.2, Youth justice statistics 2017/18)
  • The most common offence women were prosecuted at Crown Court for was shoplifting, representing 38% of all cases for women at Crown Court 
  • Black women are more likely to be prosecuted than white women 
  • 72% of prosecutions for non payment of TV licences were against women
  • 72% of prosecutions for truancy of children were against women 
  • 34% of women convicted were first time offenders compared to 21% of men 

(Ministry of Justice (2018) Statistics on women in the criminal justice system 2017) 

Women in prison 

3641 women are in prison in England and Wales (out of total prison population of 83,052) (Howard League, 2nd April 2020)

Characteristics of women in prison: 

35% of women in prison have a disability 

67% have a mental health problem 

54% have children under the age of 18 

31% were in care as a child 

53% experienced abuse as a child 

50% observed violence in the home as a child 

32% were expelled or excluded from school 

47% have no qualifications 

81% were unemployed in the month before custody 

15% were homeless before custody 

46% have attempted suicide 

64% have used Class A drugs 

22% drank alcohol every day in the four weeks before custody 

(Figures taken from Ministry of Justice (2012) Surveying Prisoner Crime Reduction Survey 2012;  Ministry of Justice (2012) Prisoners’ childhood and family backgrounds)

Why are they there? 

Remand prisoners 

(this means either they have not yet had a trial, or they have been convicted but not sentenced. The majority on remand will be pre-trial) 

In 2016, 60% of women sent to prison on remand by the magistrates’ courts and 41% of women remanded by the Crown Court did not go on to receive a custodial sentence. (Hansard (2017). House of Commons written question 119151, answered 20th December 2017)

More generally one in ten people remanded into custody by magistrates’ courts were subsequently acquitted. A further 13% received a non custodial sentence. In the Crown Court 12% were acquitted and a further 13% received a non custodial sentence . (Ministry of Justice 2019, Table Q4.4 Criminal justice statistics quarterly June 2019) 

Sentenced prisoners 

36% of women are in prison for theft

19% of women are in prison for summary (non motoring) offences 

10% of women are in prison for crimes against society 

10% of women are in prison for violence against the person 

3% of women are in prison for robbery 

1% of women are in prison for sexual offences 

(Ministry of Justice 2019, Offender Management Statistics April – June 2019) 

77%  of women have been given sentences of less than 12 months 

57% of women have been given sentences up to and including 3 months 

The average length of sentence for women is 10 months 

(Ministry of Justice (2018) Statistics on women in the criminal justice system 2017) 

Number of women sentenced to immediate custody in 2017  
Less than 2 weeks246  
2 weeks to less than 1 month1,547  
1 month to less than 3 months2,197  
3 months to less than 6 months933  
6 months to less than 12 months625  
12 months177  
Over 12 months1,511  

(Ministry of Justice 2018. Court proceeding Database Ref: PQ 198931 response)

When women appeal their sentences, between 46-50% of appeals by women have been allowed (Ministry of Justice (2018) Statistics on women in the criminal justice system 2017)

Recalled prisoners 

Women on recall (they have served the custodial period of their sentence of imprisonment but have been recalled to prison from the community due to a breach in their licence conditions) make up 8% of all women in prison. Women are recalled beyond the end of their sentence due to the enforcement of a 12 month period of post-custody supervision. They can be recalled to prison for missed appointments. The Prison Reform Trust report cited below includes evidence of a woman recalled for being out of area. The reason she was out of area was to go to hospital to give birth. (Prison Reform Trust (2018). Broken trust: The rising numbers of women recalled to prison. London: Prison Reform Trust)

Should the women in prison be there? 

The Sentencing Council responsible for Sentencing Guidelines states the following on its website; 

‘Imprisonment is the most severe sentence available to the courts.

Custodial sentences are reserved for the most serious offences and are imposed when the offence committed is “so serious that neither a fine alone nor a community sentence can be justified for the offence” (section 152(2) of the Criminal Justice Act 2003).

A custodial sentence may also be imposed where the court believes it is necessary to protect the public.’

(Sentencing Council, 2020,

In 2000, the Home Secretary commissioned a review of the sentencing framework in England and Wales and two of the main issues which the review sought to address were the inefficacy of short sentences and the need to punish proportionately for repeated offending. The changes to sentencing practice proposed in the subsequent report (Halliday, 2001) had a disproportionate impact on women. Persistent offending was viewed as ‘dangerous’, and there was no longer consensus that non-violent, less serious property offences should result in non-custodial sentences (Hudson, 2002: 32). As has been made clear above many women are in prison for theft.  Women in prison for breach of a court order (which could be civil rather than criminal) account for 13 per cent of all women under an immediate custodial sentence (Criminal Justice Joint Inspection, 2011). It is likely that prior to the Halliday report many of these women would have been given non-custodial sentences. It has also been suggested that the report conflated women’s ‘need’ with ‘risk’, and therefore those with high needs came to be thought of as high risk, causing sentencers to impose more custodial sentences on women. Despite the repetition of the fact that short sentences are not efficacious in preventing re-offending or rehabilitation, and the Government’s own Female Offender Strategy 2018 which made clear the need for women to be diverted from custody, women continue to be sentenced to very short periods of custody. These very short sentences indicate that they are not people who have committed serious offences, nor are they thought to be a danger to the public.

The implications of imprisonment for women at this time 


  • People in prison are less safe than at any other point since records began with more self harm and self inflicted deaths   (Ministry of Justice (2019), Table 1, Safety in custody statistics quarterly update to June 2019)
  • 38% of prisons rated ‘of concern or ‘of serious concerns’ by HMPPS. 16 rated ‘of serious concern’ (Ministry of Justice (2019) Table 6, Prison performance ratings 2018 to 2019)
  • Inspectors noted more than a third of people experience inadequate or poor living conditions (HM Chief Inspector of Prisons (2019) Annual report 2018–19)
  • Overcrowding – 18700 people held in overcrowded accommodation (Ministry of Justice (2019) Table 2.2, 2.3 and 2.4,) Annual HM Prison and Probation Service digest: 2018 to 2019) 

Prisons were already judged unsafe prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. It is clear from all reports emerging from prisons that they are becoming less safe by the hour. 


54% of women in prison have children under the age of 18. I have written extensively about the adverse impacts of maternal imprisonment on children. The life long impacts of this can include premature mortality (van de Wejer et al 2018).

At this time women who are primary carers should be released to care for their children, and to ensure that their often elderly and vulnerable parents are not being tasked with the care of children, which is currently contrary to public health advice. 

Author’s Note:  

Most women in prison do not need to be punished by imprisonment. Their crimes are neither so serious nor so dangerous that prison is the only possible punishment. By continuing to hold them in prison during the pandemic the government risks their lives and the wellbeing of their families on the outside. I propose that all women sentenced to less than 6 months should be released with immediate effect if they can be released to safe places. All women on remand for non-violent offences and women on recall should also be released, again with the same caveat of going to safe places. All women previously engaged on ROTL have already been risk assessed and should be released. I hope that by the time I publish this the Mother and Baby Units will be emptied, and pregnant women will no longer be held in prison. 

If women are kept imprisoned during this time, we risk many unnecessary illnesses and probable deaths, among both prisoners and staff. We also face a future where it has been made clear to a great many families in our society that their loved ones were treated as lesser at this time. The consequence of this will be felt in years to come.  

Dr Shona Minson 

Centre for Criminology

University of Oxford 

2nd April 2020