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Tuesday, April 20, 1999 Published at 00:56 GMT 01:56 UK


Women prisoners 'get rough deal'

Life in prison for women is tougher than for men, says the report

Women who fall foul of the law are spending too long in a prison system which is failing to address their particular needs, says a report published on Tuesday.

On average women lifers serve two years longer than their male counterparts before being released on licence - despite evidence which suggests they are less likely to reoffend.

The report, by the Howard League for Penal Reform, says that in addition to longer sentences, women have to cope with the additional stress caused by fears about their fertility and guilt over their inability to care for their children or relatives.

The League also criticises the Prison Service for offering women inmates stereotyped courses such as needlework and hairdressing.

'Many wear second-hand underwear'

It says many women are also forced to rely on second-hand clothing and underwear.

Recent Home Office figures show that the number of women jailed for life has risen by 85% in the past 10 years to 137 in 1997.

Some of Britain's most notorious lifers are women, including Moors Murderer Myra Hindley and serial killer Rosemary West.

The report found that women jailed for life for killing their partners are, like their male counterparts, serving much longer than the tariff set by the home secretary.

Figures for 1997 showed that women lifers served 16.7 years in custody before being released compared with 14.3 years for men.

None of the 52 women lifers freed since 1981 has been reconvicted of a serious offence, compared with 5% of male lifers freed between 1989 and 1993.

Frances Crook, director of the Howard League, said women lifers were getting "a raw deal".

She said: "They seem to get disproportionately long recommended sentences and many spend years in prison beyond this time.

'Cruel and unfair'

"This is particularly cruel and unfair as it does not seem to be based on what is known about many women lifers' offending behaviour."

Many female lifers face additional stress and guilt caused by not being able to look after children, elderly parents or siblings, says the report.

The Howard League said childless young women suffered the additional trauma of spending their best child-bearing years behind bars.

It said there was also little training on offer to women lifers to help them cope with life outside.

Many women said they had fewer opportunities for vocational training than male prisoners and said the courses available were often gender-stereotyped.

The BBC fly-on-the-wall documentary series, Jailbirds, which began earlier this month, has shown women inmates at New Hall prison in Yorkshire resorting to drug abuse and self-mutilation as they struggle to cope with incarceration.

Women inmates are allowed to wear their own clothes in prison - a privilege not available to convicted male prisoners - but the Howard League said that many have so little money they have to rely on hand-outs from charity.

Many wear second-hand underwear, which does little to enhance their self-esteem, says the report.

'We are doing our best'

The Prison Service said it was already considering the issue of prisoners serving longer than the period of their tariff after the problem was highlighted in a recent report by the Prison and Probation Service Inspectorates.

But a Prison Service spokesman said issues such as length of tariff set and mandatory sentences were a matter for the Home Office.

He said the Prison Service did recognise that women inmates had different needs and had established a Women's Policy Group.

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