Intended for healthcare professionals

Analysis Healthcare in Prisons

Women prisoners

BMJ 2013; 346 doi: (Published 11 January 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:e8318

This article has a correction. Please see:

  1. Stephen Ginn, Roger Robinson editorial registrar
  1. 1BMJ, London WC1H 9JR, UK
  1. mail{at}

The rate at which women are being imprisoned exceeds that of men. Most are disadvantaged and vulnerable and should not be there, finds Stephen Ginn

Women commit fewer crimes than men and make up only 5% of the total prison population.1 2 Nevertheless, their number has trebled over the past 20 years and there are now about 4000 female prisoners in England and Wales,3 an increase that outstrips that of the prison population as a whole (fig 1).4 No evidence exists that women are committing more serious offences than before,5 and the rise is explained by a shift away from non-custodial penalties for relatively trivial offences towards short prison sentences.2 6

Fig 1 Rise in number of women in prison versus prisoners as a whole 4

Different crimes, short sentences

The pattern of women’s offending differs from that of men. Women have a lower involvement in serious violence, criminal damage, and professional crime5 but commit proportionally more acquisitive crimes such as theft.7 Women’s crimes are likely to be related to their domestic situation,5 8 with crimes being committed to provide for families or to fund a woman’s or her partner’s addiction.8

Half of women prisoners serve sentences of six months or less (fig 2).2 This gives rise to a rapid turnover in the female prison population. The number of women committed to prison each year far exceeds the level of the female prison population at any one time. During the year ending July 2011 there were about 4 200 9 women prisoners in England and Wales at any one time, but 10  173 women were received into prison.10 Nearly half of women entering prison are on remand,2 and after an average prison stay of four to six weeks, over …

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