Violence and self-harm in women’s jails hits record high as prisons crisis deepens

The rise in violence has gone alongside a surge in incidents involving self-harm, with almost 20,000  recorded last year and the number almost tripling in a decade (iStock/Getty)
The rise in violence has gone alongside a surge in incidents involving self-harm, with almost 20,000 recorded last year and the number almost tripling in a decade (iStock/Getty)

The number of assaults and self-harm incidents in women’s prisons in England and Wales has hit record highs, new figures show.

Analysis of Ministry of Justice data reveals the number of assaults in the female prison estate has almost tripled between 2010 and 2023 – increasing from 653 to 1,781 incidents. The number of assaults shot up by 32 per cent last year – up from 1,346 incidents in 2022.

Government data also shows the number of sexual assaults in women’s jails – which includes assaults among prisoners and against staff – hit a record high last year, with offences doubling.

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Some 27 sexual assaults were reported in 2022 but this rose to 54 in 2023, a substantial rise on the 11 incidents documented back in 2010.

The rise in violence has occurred alongside a surge in self-harm, with almost 20,000 incidents recorded last year and the numbers almost tripling in a decade.

Pavan Dhaliwal, chief executive of criminal justice charity Revolving Doors, told The Independent: “Shocking statistics like these emerge against a backdrop of overcrowded, chaotic and crisis-ridden prisons.

“[Prisons] are failing to rehabilitate or provide women with the support they so desperately need – instead contributing to further trauma and misery which will trap more women in the cycle of crisis and crime.”

She called for a “fundamental reconsideration” of whether prison is the right place for many women as she warned many are victims and are “too often criminalised after offending that’s linked to trauma, abuse, poor mental health and poverty.

“Tackling these issues starts outside of prison with targeted support and long-term efforts to divert women away from the justice system.”

It comes after The Independent reported on the surge in the number of women being jailed – despite a government pledge to cut the number of female prisoners – as a wider overcrowding crisis grips the sector.

A previous report by the Prison Reform Trust found that 80 per cent of women in jail were there for non-violent offences.

And an NHS report on health and social care in women’s prisons from last year said “acutely mentally ill women are still being sent to prison”, with gaps in mental health services for “primary mental healthcare” and a dearth of “specialist interventions for women who have experienced trauma, including sexual and domestic violence”.

Emily Evison, women’s policy lead at Prison Reform Trust, said the shocking figures demonstrate why the approach to women’s offending must be overhauled “with a much greater focus on treatment and support in the community with prison reserved only for serious and violent offences”.

She added: “Violence in prison often occurs when severely distressed women are having to live in conditions which retrigger histories of abuse and neglect which many of them have experienced.

“Despite their best efforts, prison staff are not equipped to provide the specialist, trauma-informed services which many of these women so clearly need. We are failing these women and the staff who work with them.”

It comes after an independent inspection of women’s prison HMP Eastwood Park in 2022 found “appalling” cells, which were “dilapidated and covered in graffiti, one was blood-spattered, and some had extensive scratches on the walls which reflected the degree of trauma previous residents must have experienced”.

The inspection concluded that “no prisoner should be held in such conditions, let alone women who were acutely unwell and in great distress”.

A Prison Service spokesperson said: “All staff receive training on suicide and self-harm and female offenders are also able to access a range of programmes and support to address their complex needs and reduce their risk of reoffending.”

If you are experiencing feelings of distress, or are struggling to cope, you can speak to the Samaritans, in confidence, on 116 123 (UK and ROI), email, or visit the Samaritans website to find details of your nearest branch. I

f you are based in the USA, and you or someone you know needs mental health assistance right now, call or text 988, or visit to access online chat from the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. This is a free, confidential crisis hotline that is available to everyone 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

If you are in another country, you can go to to find a helpline near you.