Young Adult Women in Custody

Published 25/06/2020
Author(s) Rona Epstein

Read the journal article corresponding to this blog: Policy and Practice for Young Adult Women in the Criminal Justice System

In 2016 the Transition to Adult Alliance published its research report on young women in the criminal justice system, Meeting the needs of young adult women in prison, by Rob Allen.

Studies have shown that almost half of girls under 18 in custody have reported having been in local authority care at some point in their childhoods. This is almost certainly the case for young adult women in custody as well. Many have suffered from abuse and trauma, and experience mental health and addiction problems. Many have been the victims of more recent traumas compared with older women, who are likely to have experienced these events longer ago. Young women are also particularly vulnerable to exploitation by other prisoners.

Women offenders are a minority group. They account for 15% of the current probation caseload and 5% of the prison population. Women offenders differ significantly from their male counterparts and often exhibit more complex needs. Many women offenders have a background of abuse; frequently report having been victims of domestic violence.

The T2A research found that young women in prison are more likely to suffer from a toxic mix of fear and boredom than older women. Prisons are failing to address the distinct needs of young women aged 18–24, including education and mental health needs. In the youth estate, teenage girls are viewed as having such specific needs that not one girl under 18 is held in a young offender institution, making the transition to adult women’s prisons when they turn 18 particularly abrupt and risky.

All women over 18 are treated the same and mixed together. This is in contrast to young men, for whom there is separate legislation and there are distinct young adult establishments. In their 2011/2012 annual report, HMIP considered that ‘A failure to identify and address the specific needs of young adult women is becoming a consistent feature of our inspections of women’s prisons’ (Allen, 2016).

Despite some efforts made in individual institutions to meet the needs of this age group, the T2A research found that prison regimes do not sufficiently follow the Prison Service order to provide younger women prisoners with more supervision and activities.  It is the attitudes and behaviour of staff which seem key to ensuring that young adults are appropriately managed within the prison setting. Young women report a poorer experience of prison than older women do, especially in their first nights. On-going neurological and hormonal development of young women in prison is believed to increase the susceptibility to peer pressure, the inability to cope with prison life and the incidence of mental illness. Young adult women are more likely to self-harm, and the most common age of self-inflicted deaths of women in prison during the period 1990 to 2007 was 20 years old. Over a fifth (21%) of self-inflicted deaths of women in custody between 1990 and 2007 were of those aged 18–21 (INQUEST, 2014).

The T2A report highlights a lack of progress in prison education as a particular concern. The NOMS guide A distinct approach reports:

Ofsted have highlighted the level of education, training and employment achievements among young women are often very low. Many young women will have been excluded from school so their last memories of education may not be positive. The ‘building blocks’ of learning may not be there and they may have limited capacity to learn until these skills are developed. (Allen, 2016).

A stronger presumption should be introduced against the use of custody both for remand and sentencing for young adult women, particularly for the majority whose offending (or alleged offending, in the case of remand) is non-violent. This would mean increased provision of appropriate diversion and community sentencing options using services and programmes tailored to the needs of troubled young women, backed up by training and information for police, magistrates and judges. Given the evidence that sexual abuse and domestic violence are common underlying factors for young women’s involvement in offending, priority should be given to ensuring that they have access to appropriate counselling, support and therapeutic programmes, both in custody and in the community.