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Friday, June 4, 1999 Published at 15:54 GMT 16:54 UK


Record levels of women jailed

More women are being sent to prison for drugs offences

The number of women in UK prisons has risen to record levels.

Burglary and drugs offences have led to a big leap in the female jail population, it was revealed on Friday.

Linda Jones, Head of Women's Policy at the Prison Service, said the figures "scotched the myth" that women were being jailed for non-payment of fines and debts such as television licences.

Few jailed for fine default

The figures, revealed at a conference in London called "The Crisis in Women's Prisons", show that the number of women behind bars last year was 3,105 - double the number five years ago.

Mrs Jones said half of the rise was due to an increase in women being jailed for drugs offences.

[ image: Women are less likely than men to go to prison, according to research]
Women are less likely than men to go to prison, according to research
A third of female prisoners had been sentenced for drugs offences, and another third had been involved in "drug-related" incidents.

The number of women in prison for burglary went up by 18% to 130. But at the end of March, only four women were serving time for fine default.

"It is simply not true that a great many women are in prison for fine default," Mrs Jones said.

"In March, four of the 133 prisoners held for fine default were women, and none of them were jailed for non-payment of television licences."

Alternative sentences

Mrs Jones said the swift rise in the number of female inmates had created a challenge, but she denied that the service was in crisis.

At the end of April, the number was 3,160, which showed that the speed of growth had slowed down.

The growth could be further slowed by alternative sentences such as community service penalties and electronic tagging.

The conference was also told that current research showed that women were less likely than men to be sent to prison, including for offences like shoplifting, and that they received shorter sentences.

Research was also being carried out to find out what factors encouraged women to become criminals, and whether these differed from male "criminogenic factors".

Evidence suggested that victimisation and abuse were particularly significant factors in women's offending. Between 50% and 90% of women in prison were thought to have been abused.

'Macho and bullying culture'

The conference heard that the Prison Service aimed to ensure that regimes in women's prisons addressed the particular needs of women.

But although some good work was being done there was a long way to go.

Author and prison campaigner Angela Devlin said progress was being blocked by "deliberately obstructive" prison officers who were determined to perpetuate a "macho and bullying" culture in prisons.

She said too many officers saw prisoners as sub-human, referring to them as "bodies".

Prison slang used by staff, which included calling women who mutilated themselves "slashers" or "slicers", and those who attempted suicide "swingers", degraded women and showed a lack of concern for their well-being.

Ms Devlin also criticised the training and educational opportunities available to female inmates.

Mrs Jones said the majority of staff working in women's prisons were dedicated and caring, but acknowledged there were some officers whose attitudes were not acceptable. She said it was something which had to be tackled.

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