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Last Updated: Tuesday, 15 July, 2003, 22:44 GMT 23:44 UK
'Record' suicides among women prisoners
women in prison
Two out of every three women in prison suffer from a mental disorder
A record number of women have committed suicide in prison this year, according to a report.

In the first six months of 2003, 10 female inmates of prisons in England killed themselves - more than in the whole of 2002 - the Prison Reform Trust (PRT) says.

And there have been nearly 3,000 incidents of self-harm.

In the last month alone, prison officers have resuscitated 26 women who would otherwise have successfully committed suicide, the PRT report says.

Previous research by the Office for National Statistics has indicated two out of every three women in prison suffer from at least one mental disorder.

The PRT report, published on Wednesday, comes a day after the annual report of the Prison Service in England and Wales revealed it had failed to cut the number of people comitting suicide in jail.

The head of the Prison Service, Phil Wheatley, said the failure to reduce suicides had been his "biggest disappointment".

I learnt how it feels to want to die every day
Female prisoner

The PRT study suggests four out of every 10 female prisoners have attempted suicide.

And one out of every three "are so distressed and disturbed" they injure themselves.

Women inmates were nearly 18 times more likely than their male prisoners to self-harm, according to the study.

The research was conducted by the Prison Service Safer Custody Group at two women's prisons and eight men's prisons across England.

Most of the women who harm themselves do so more than once - and 14% more than 10 times, the report indicates.

The PRT accuses the Prison Service of providing inadequate mental health care, well below NHS standards.

'Buried alive'

In many cases prison regimes simply exacerbate mental distress, it says.

One former prisoner told the trust: "During the two-and-a-half years of my incarceration I was to discover the depths of despair one can fall into, believing I was losing my mind, believing I was dead, believing I was buried alive, believing I would never be free.

"I learnt about self- harm, physically and emotionally. I learnt how it feels to want to die every day.

"Prison is not a place for the mentally ill. Too many women are there already that should not be."

It is cruel to lock up mentally ill women
PRT director Juliet Lyon
The PRT is also calling on magistrates and judges to consider alternative penalties to prison for vulnerable women.

Director Juliet Lyon said: "It is cruel to lock up mentally ill women. It does lasting harm to them and their families."

With 4,597 women behind bars in England and Wales - three times as many as in 1993 - Britain has the largest female prison population in Europe, the PRT says.

And women are held an average of 63 miles away from home, which prisons manager Hazel Banks told the BBC added to "their general concern and distress".

Sexual abuse

The vast majority of women prisoners are serving short sentences for non-violent crimes, the study says, adding that just over half of them are reconvicted within two years of release.

Most say they have suffered violence at home, and a third have apparently experienced sexual abuse.

The study also suggests a quarter of female prisoners have spent time in local authority care as a child, and nearly 40% left school before the age of 16.

The BBC's Niall Dickson
"Since January there have been nearly 3,000 incidents of self harm"

Prison tries new custody rules
07 Jul 03  |  Lincolnshire
A woman's life behind bars
26 Nov 01  |  UK
Concern over women's prison deaths
31 Oct 01  |  Scotland

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