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Monday, 26 November, 2001, 16:57 GMT
Sharp rise in women prisoners
The women's prison population has passed 4,000
A third men's jail is to be converted to take women offenders in response to a big rise in the female prison population, the government has announced.

A record 4,045 women are housed in British jails, out of an overall prison population of 68,357.

Anyone who is sent to prison by the courts, I have to take

Prison Service director general Martin Narey
The Prison Service announced that demand for women's places is so great that the 350-place Buckley Hall prison in Rochdale will be converted over the next few months to take female inmates.

The rise in the prison population had been "simply incredible", Prison Service director general Martin Narey told the BBC.

He called on courts to impose shorter sentences on convicted women to avoid overcrowding.

Two other male jails were converted earlier this year.

Emergency conversion

Buckley Hall's emergency conversion comes less than a fortnight after a pioneering training and employment project was unveiled for its prisoners.

The announcement was made in a Commons written answer by Home Office minister Beverley Hughes on Monday.

She said the prison was expected to be ready to accept female prisoners from early next year.

The number of female prisoners has risen by 7% in the three months to the end of September, the equivalent of an annual 28% increase, according to Mr Narey.

He said more women were in prison for drug-related offences and violence and there was an increase in the use of custodial sentences.

"I can't start a waiting list.

"Anyone who is sent to prison by the courts, I have to take", he said.

He fears that educational and drug rehabilitation programmes in jails were being threatened by overcrowding.

"I have had from this government 175m for drug treatment programmes.

"I don't want to see them being overwhelmed by a population we are having to bus up and down the country to anywhere where there is a spare bed".

Easing the crisis

The Buckley Hall plans follow the conversion this year of the 340-space Downview jail in Surrey and 200-space Morton Hall prison in Lincolnshire.

Downview prison
Downview prison: Three suicide attempts
At Downview male inmates enrolled on the prison's pioneering drug rehabilitation scheme were transferred in the middle of their treatment.

One drugs workers said the effects were devastating.

There are also concerns over the health facilities for the women who have been moved there.

Downview's Board of Visitors says there have been three suicide attempts in the last month and the prison is ill-equipped to deal with vulnerable inmates.

Mr Narey told the BBC: "We have had to put women in that prison far more quickly than I think is safe."

He accepted that the situation at Downview had been "enormously difficult" but he said the women had to be put somewhere.

The Times says the 4,045 women in prison last week was a 20% increase on the same week last year.

Two new prisons with places for women are being built, but will not be ready for at least two years.

The BBC's Danny Shaw
"The increase... took officials by surprise"
Prison Service director general Martin Narey
"It has been enormously difficult"
Jeff Dobson, Prison Reform Trust
"There is an underlying toughening of sentencing"
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