An Inspector Calls describes how a young woman is let down by authority figures. The morality play lambasts powerful individuals for exploiting and abusing a woman who dies in abject misery. I was reminded of it this week on hearing about the death of Sarah Reed, who appears to have taken her own life while on remand at Holloway prison in north London following years of neglect and abuse from a litany of authorities. Reed is not alone, most of the women in Holloway have experienced abuse first followed by punishment by the criminal justice system.
A blog by Lee Jasper, a former director of policing and equalities for London, gives some of the background to Reed’s life. It could well be the story of so many women in prison today who have experienced bereavement and abuse. Whereas very few have done anything serious or violent, most women in prison have been the victims of serious and violent crime.
After Reed’s baby died in 2003, she suffered years of mental illness, and then was a victim of a nasty assault by a police officer who was eventually convicted and dismissed. She was detained under section 3 of the Mental Health Act, and there is an allegation of attempted rape while she was in hospital that resulted in an altercation. It is not clear if this was another patient or a member of staff, but either way the apparent negligence of the hospital to keep her safe was yet another blow to her already fragile state of mind. It seems extraordinary that a hospital would involve the police when the staff must have known about Reed’s experience with the authorities previously and how terrifying that would be for her…
In prison, levels of distress by women are extreme. In the 12 months to end of September 2015, there were 7,415 incidents of self-harm by female prisoners in the UK, up 11% on the same period the previous year. Women account for around a quarter of self-harm incidents but comprise only 5% of the prison population. Anyone taking the decision to send a women into such an institution should do it with a heavy heart. Yet if over two-thirds of the women sent to prison by magistrates on remand have no realistic prospect of, and do not in fact merit, a prison sentence, why are they sent there?