Women's prisons could be shut and converted to house male inmates as jails full (2024)

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Justice Secretary Shabana Mahmood is expected to announce emergency measures within days as the country runs out of available cells in male jails

Women's prisons could be closed and converted to accommodate male inmates under longer term plans to tackle the overcrowding crisis.

Justice Secretary Shabana Mahmood is expected to announce emergency measures within days as the country runs out of available cells in male jails. Tens of thousands of prisoners could be released early to create capacity after the Tories failed to build adequate places.

Under one proposal put forward to the government, enough female prisoners could be let out early to free up an entire prison, which could then be turned into one for men. The Mirror understands the idea is not part of the immediate plans to be announced this week, but may be considered as a solution in the medium term.

Keir Starmer is expected to authorise a plan for some offenders to be automatically released after serving just 40% of their sentences. Prisoners serving sentences of less than four years and who have an automatic release date are expected to be freed early under the scheme. It would exclude criminals jailed for sexual, violent or terror-related offences. The plan would include women offenders.

Women make up a much smaller proportion of the prison population, with 3,657 in jail compared to 83,796 men. There are 12 women’s prisons out of 117 in total in England and Wales. More than half (58%) of prison sentences given to women in 2022 were for less than six months. Short sentences can derail people’s lives, with jobs and houses lost and mums separated from their kids. They are also seen as largely ineffective with reoffending rates high.

The Prison Advice and Care Trust (PACT), which is commissioned by the Government to provide family services in more than half of the country’s prisons, has long campaigned for more evidence-based use of imprisonment. For instance, it wants to see a move to more open prisons, where offenders go to work, see their family and reintegrate into society during the daytime and return to prison at night.

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Andy Keen-Downs, chief executive of the Prison Advice and Care Trust, said: “Many female prisoners are a very low risk to the public and around a half have children on the outside. Moreover, with levels of self-harm now at record levels, prisons are not a safe place for many women.

“Releasing more low-risk women earlier could even allow the Government to close a female prison, convert it to a men’s prison and free up some much-needed capacity in the male estate. If we have to build more prisons, open prisons should be prioritised – they’re faster to build, cheaper to run, and will prepare prison leavers more effectively for life on the outside.”

Janey Starling, co-director of Level Up, who campaigns for an end to imprisonment for pregnant women and mothers, said prison "tears up someone's life". “Often with women - well with everybody - people are coming out without housing, without support. Many women are separated from their families," she said. “In relation to women I would like to see a promise not to build any more prison places and a commitment to closing women’s prisons and seeing community alternatives which are in line with the evidence.”

A Government spokesman said: “The prison system is in crisis - with record numbers of offenders behind bars. This is putting significant pressure on the whole justice system and turning prisons into a breeding ground for more crime. We will get a grip of the situation so we can lock up the most dangerous offenders, protect the public and make our prisons safer for hard-working staff.”

Women's prisons could be shut and converted to house male inmates as jails full (2024)
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