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Monday, 26 November, 2001, 13:19 GMT
A woman's life behind bars
Former inmate Sandra Gregory
Former inmate Sandra Gregory contemplates life inside
As the Home Office announces plans to convert another men's prison into a women-only jail, one female inmate talks about life inside.

Sharon - not her real name - is currently serving time in an open prison in England. Like many women, she started her sentence in London's Holloway prison before being moved to a less secure unit.


You've got to watch your back - women are just so bitchy, it's like being back in the playground

Sharon, a serving offender
"It's disgusting, a pithole, and it can very scary for some women," she says. "I'd been in on remand before I was bailed, but this was still a shock."

Security is no less tight for females. On arrival at Holloway her possessions were examined and she was strip-searched - "which is very degrading" - before being allocated a cell to share with a couple of other women

"They seemed to be OK, but you don't go to prison to make friends. It's not a nice place to be - you've got to watch your back. I'm not talking about physical abuse, but women are just so bitchy. It's like being back in the playground," she says.

Her routine today, in open prison, is much like that in more secure institutions. But whereas most offenders are under lock and key, those in open jails can leave on temporary licence for work placements, doctor's appointments or family visits.

Dot Cotton
Serving time: EastEnders' Dot Cotton gets a visit from a friend
"There are very strict rules, because in an open prison you could abscond at any time," Sharon says. "But there's also a degree of trust, because we are here as part of our rehabilitation into the community."

Prison staff conduct four roll-calls a day, usually at mealtimes, to ensure all inmates are accounted for. The first name-check is shortly after the women rise at 7am.

Much of the day is taken up with work activities or education programmes. Many women study sociology or psychology, says Sharon, who is about to complete an interior design course.

Study can pay dividends after release. Former inmate Sandra Gregory, who served time in Britain and Asia for drug smuggling, made the headlines recently when she announced she had won a place at Oxford University.

Family problems

While many of Sharon's fellow inmates are mothers, she is thankful not to be a parent.

Family contact is one of the most controversial issues in the debate about women behind bars. Women tend to be "prime carers" and so when a mother is separated from her children, the rest of the family often falls apart.

Holloway Prison
Holloway Prison: Britain's best-known women's jail
Yet with relatively few women's prisons, inmates are frequently incarcerated a long way from their family home.

Research for the Home Office found the most common reason behind women absconding from open prison was to resolve a "domestic situation".

In the United States, research has found women who maintained close family ties were six times less likely to reoffend in the first year after release than those who had no family support.

In terms of sleeping arrangements, while more secure units tend to have cells for one or two inmates, open prisons generally house offenders in communal rooms.

Keepsakes

"Nine out of 10 times it'll be dorms - you'll be banged up with 10 women all arguing with each other," says Sharon. We queue for meals, we queue for showers - prison is all about queuing."

Each inmate has a pin board to display personal items - "I have family photos" - and, unlike their male counterparts, women can wear their own clothes. The Home Office allows females to bring in 20 items - 10 tops and 10 bottoms - and at some institutions, inmates can apply to swap these on a weekly basis.

"Some women wear the prison-issue tracksuit when they're slobbing around, but I don't like it much. As for the rooms, a lot have been redecorated in women's prisons but it's not the comforts of home."

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