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Last Updated: Saturday, 12 June, 2004, 02:44 GMT 03:44 UK
Does jailing women really work?
By Laura Smith-Spark
BBC News Online

The population of women's prisons is soaring - and with it the number of female inmates with serious drug and mental health problems who may try to commit suicide.

Women in prison
Almost four in 10 women prisoners have previously attempted suicide

In the wake of a critical report of Styal Women's Prison, BBC News Online asks whether locking vulnerable women up really works. One woman who spent 11 years in Styal Prison is adamant jail is no place for some of the most damaged members of society.

A newly-released Chrissie says people should pay a penalty for their crime. But a prison term does not necessarily serve the interests of justice.

There were terrible problems - the women used to fight. They would do anything to get their drugs
Chrissie, former Styal inmate

She steered clear of drugs herself in Styal - having seen their "devastating" effect - and is now writing a PhD thesis on the problem.

Some of the worst problems she saw in the prison's Waite wing, housing mainly remand prisoners, came before the recent introduction of a methadone prescribing regime.

This meant women had to go "cold turkey" - often locked in a cell for hours a day.

She said: "For the women in the Waite wing it was atrocious.

"The amount of drugs in there was quite tremendous. It was heroin mainly but it was also more and more cocaine coming in."

prison door
Many women come off drugs like heroin in their cells with little help

When drugs were scarce, addicts turned to violence and other forms of assault to get hold of them, said Chrissie, now 58 and living near Wrexham.

"There were terrible problems - the women used to fight. They would do anything to get them."

She believes a programme to support women through the detoxification process is a positive step.

But whether it should take place in prison is another matter.

"Personally, if women were sent into treatment rather than prison, that kind of regime would have a far more useful outcome," she said.

'Very sad'

Chrissie, who served 17 years for conspiracy to murder her husband, also questions whether women with mental health issues are best served by a jail term.

She used to visit friends sent to Styal's psychiatric unit.

"It was very, very sad. They shouldn't have been in prison - they should have been hospitalised."

Official figures suggest a female prison population numbering almost 4,600 in March this year is having real problems.

According to a report by the government's Social Exclusion Unit, 63% of sentenced female prisoners have a neurotic disorder - over three times the level in the general population.

I think we have to ask whether prison is or ever can be the right place to treat acute mental illness
Anne Owers
Chief Inspector of Prisons

Of those, 14% have a psychotic disorder, double the proportion in male prisoners and 23 times the level in the general population.

And while in the outside world men are more likely to attempt suicide, behind bars almost 40% of women have previously tried to take their lives.

Prison Service statistics say women account for a quarter of self-harm incidents in all prisons but are only 6% of the total prison population.

Styal Prison is unusual in having a psychiatric unit, Chief Inspector of Prisons Anne Owers told BBC News Online.

Styal prison
Styal Prison is unusual in having a psychiatric wing

But she said: "The women it was holding were acutely mentally ill and I think we have to ask whether prison is or ever can be the right place to treat acute mental illness."

She warned that providing better facilities might encourage the notion it was right to send people with serious mental health issues to prison.

Ms Owers said some local prisons had more than 100 self-harm attempts a month and 75 women on suicide watch.

"Prison staff save lives and do so on a regular basis," she said, "but we have to look at alternatives to prison."

'Darker place'

The pressure on the courts to consider community service rather than custodial sentences for women offenders is strong.

The Revolving Doors Agency, a charity supporting offenders with mental health problems, believes prison makes matters worse.

Head of policy Murray Benham said prison could often tear women away from any network of support they had from their family and result in loss of home and job.

If the courts refer them to us, we have to look after them - we cannot say they are the wrong kind of prisoners
Phil Wheatley
Director general of the Prison Service
He said: "They will probably leave prison in a mentally darker place and quickly find themselves bounced back into prison for a relatively minor offence."

Holly Dustin, of women's rights campaign group Fawcett Society, argued imprisoning women - largely for theft and other non-violent offences - could simply break up families rather than serving the cause of justice.

Phil Wheatley, director general of the Prison Service, said prison staff did their best to help women sentenced to jail - who increasingly had drug and mental health problems.

"If the courts refer them to us, we have to look after them - we cannot say they are the wrong kind of prisoners," he said.

"But there's no doubt they are a much needier group than they used to be."

Marjorie Wallace, chief executive of mental health charity Sane, said: "There has been an alarming increase in those who are committing suicide.

"We need to prevent unnecessary deaths by building specialised units, with staff trained to identify and treat those with serious underlying mental illness or psychological disorders, outside the prison system.

"High security should not be the only recourse for some of the most damaged members of society."

'Take mentally ill out of jails'
20 Jan 04 |  Politics
Changes ordered after prison deaths
23 Jan 04 |  Manchester
Women offered prison alternative
29 Jan 04 |  Scotland

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