A user-led programme empowering 16 female volunteers to inform and influence how the police engages with young females with mental health problems while being in custody. Funded by the London Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) and project managed by Dr. Theo Gavrielides, the project pubished its findings in (2012). Listening to Young Women in Police Custody: Mental health needs and the police response, London: IARS.

One of the gaps identified by Baroness Corston’s 2007 report (Home Office) on women in the criminal justice system was a lack of support for those with mental health problems. Equally, the review carried out by the London Criminal Justice Partnership (LCJP) and Youth Justice Board identified a lack of knowledge on the experience of girls and young women in the criminal justice system.

In June 2011 a group of 16 young women aged 16-25 were recruited by IARS to volunteer on this project. These young women were recruited through our diverse referral network including Kids Company, Westminster Kingsway College, Volunteer Centre Lambeth, and Vinspired. All volunteers received training in Research Methods and Human Rights in order to provide them with the skills and knowledge required for the project.

The group had direct experience of mental health issues and the criminal justice system. Having the skills and confidence to highlight issues impacting on them as users of the criminal justice system, they then engaged with other similar users to create an evidence base for addressing gaps in public knowledge and service provision. The results were included in the IARS 2012 publication Listening to Young Women in Police Custody: Mental health needs and the police response

  • Empowering some of the most marginalised users of the criminal justice system (young females with mental health issues) the project will create a youth-led, evidence base for policy making and practice for the MPs in Tower Hamlets and Hackney, and the MPA in working with young females (victims or offenders) with mental health problems.
  • Constructing a pioneering and innovative model of engagement with this community that is replicable in other areas and by others. This model will enable police to engage with the target group as well as help to effectively spot and support girls and women with mental health problems through a community based, evidence based approach.
  • Working directly with local police forces in Tower Hamlets and Hackney to improve practice and highlight to other boroughs how they can adopt the project’s findings and model, with support from IARS and Together UK.

The report, called Listening to Women in Police Custody, was launched at IARS’ Annual Conference on 26th September 2012.

The year-long study, which was informed by a substantive literature review and in-depth interviews with 24 girls, revealed that underlying mental health issues, likely a cause of offending behaviour, can go unnoticed and undiagnosed by officers. The 24 research participants, who were aged 16 – 25, were often victims of abuse and violence, suffered symptoms of depression and had a history of self-harming. This is common amongst the wider female offender population as the government commissioned 2007 Corston Inquiry report on women in the criminal justice system also showed.

Despite progress made, the research highlights inconsistencies in questions being asked to young women about their mental health needs and varying levels of support being provided. The research participants expressed the need to have appropriate opportunities to disclose their mental health problems in confidence to female as opposed to male officers as soon as possible, whilst in police custody. Further, girls who ended up in custody for a second time rarely had their mental health needs checked.

A research participant, 18 years old said “I was actually harming myself in there… but because I was there for so long and it was stressing me out, I had to do something”

 Academic research reviewed by the report found that that 71% of girls in youth offending institutions in the UK have mental health needs. The Corston Inquiry report first drew attention to the prevalence of mental health issues amongst women who offend and brought it to the fore as an important gendered issue for criminal justice policy.

Crucially, the IARS research suggests, spotting and addressing these underlying mental health issues at this first step in the criminal justice process, could divert these girls to appropriate services, including counselling and rehabilitation, instead of leaving them with a caution and a high chance of ending up back in custody, or worse.

The full version of the report Listening to Women in Police Custody is available on the IARS bookstore here.