Headlines: June 20th, 2006

Prison reformers are calling for all women’s jails to have special centres for prisoners’ first night in custody and for strategies to be developed that would lead to similar centres being opened in all prisons. The Howard League for Penal Reform today publishes ‘Care, concern and carpets’, which says the custody centres would help to reduce self-harm and suicide.The report says the period immediately after someone’s arrival in prison is one of heightened risk of self-harm and suicide. Half of those who take their own lives in prison do so during the first month of their sentence. First night centres help ease transition into the prison and the Howard League says its research shows that a dedicated wing, or unit, in which all new prisoners spend their first 48 hours, can contribute to saving lives.

The League argues that centres should be run by dedicated staff with support and assistance from fellow prisoners. It wants the units to be furnished in a far less harsh way than normal prison accommodation and provide information and immediate contact with families and children. The aim should be to reduce the distress felt by many new prisoners.

Today’s report argues that special arrangements for the first night in custody are especially important for women prisoners as they are particularly vulnerable with extremely high levels of mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse and histories of physical and sexual abuse. It says eight out of ten women prisoners have diagnosable mental health problems.

Key recommendations in the report are for a formal strategy for managing first nights in custody in every prison, as part of a wider approach to reducing distress and harm; cleaner, kinder, fairer and more streamlined reception processes and a proper period of induction into the prison lasting a fortnight as well as for the centres in women’s prisons. It also calls for the rolling out of first night centres to men’s local prisons, which experience disproportionately high rates of suicide.

The charity’s report illustrates the impact of a properly resourced first night centre using the examples of Holloway and Styal prisons. Frances Crook, Director of the Howard League, said, “The majority of women in prison are not dangerous and should be managed safely in the community. However, whilst they are still being imprisoned it is incumbent on the Prison Service to keep them safe, and first night in custody centres – such as those the Howard League for Penal Reform saw at Holloway and Styal prisons – can play a critical role in achieving this.”