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Friday, 24 May, 2002, 06:15 GMT 07:15 UK
Women's prisons 'facing crisis'
Prisoner and warden
Staff shortages have caused serious problems
Women's jails in England and Wales could be full within two months, Prison Service officials have warned.

They said a huge expansion in the number of women receiving jail sentences has led to a crisis in both capacity and standards in prisons.

The warning comes with the publication on Friday of details of a snap inspection at a women's prison near Bristol.

It found the inmates at risk of suicide and self-harm and the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Anne Owers, said the management there had been overwhelmed.

Suicide risks

The unannounced visit and inspection of Eastwood Park prison in Gloucestershire found there had been three suicides since the previous visit two years earlier.


This is nothing short of scandalous

Anne Owers, Chief Inspector of Prisons
In one month alone there had been 47 cases of self harm and 56 women had been newly identified as suicide risks.

Ms Owers said staff were struggling to provide inmates with decent conditions and described the prison as "an establishment in crisis".

She told BBC Radio 4's Today Programme: "Some of the most committed and hardworking staff are struggling against the odds to provide decent treament for some extremely damaged and vulnerable women and girls.

"There are high levels of mental health problems and substance abuse among women who are, in many cases, primary carers of children under 16 in our prison system.

"The fact that the numbers of these people are increasing is nothing short of scandalous."

Eastwood Park prison failed to meet 76 of the 112 recommendations made by inspectors after their previous visit and had deteriorated since then.

'Overwhelmed'

The inspectors said the 300-inmate jail, in the village of Falfield, near Bristol, did not provide a safe environment for many of its 300 inmates, including 60 girls as young as 15.

Ms Owers said: "This is a very troubling report of an establishment in crisis.

"At the time of inspection it was unable to provide a safe, decent and constructive environment for many of the women and girls within it.

"It is a picture of an establishment whose management had been completely overwhelmed by the real difficulties it faced, to the extent that it was unable to provide coherent leadership, strategy or regime.

"It had resorted to reactive crisis management creating unacceptable deficits in safety, decency and constructive activity for prisoners, and impossible working conditions for staff."

'Excellent staff'

The report found numbers of mentally-ill patients in the health care unit were "beyond the expertise and number" of nursing staff.

Chief inspector of prisons Anne Owers
Anne Owers: "Conditions have deteriorated"
There were no facilities for visitors, who had to use the hedge in the car park as a toilet, where inspectors found excrement and dirty nappies.

Ms Owers said: "Eastwood Park is one of several prisons we have inspected where the Prison Service ethos of 'coping', often in extremely difficult circumstances, serves to disguise and compound problems that cannot and should not be coped with.

"The crisis situation at Eastwood Park should have been identified much earlier, not only by managers in the prison but by those they report to at area and headquarters level."

Inspectors made a total of 89 recommendations, including repeats from the previous visit.

'Improving'

Director general of the Prison Service, Martin Narey, acknowledged the report's criticisms and said the jail had suffered from the national overcrowding problem.

He said: "Eastwood Park was inspected at a particularly difficult time when staff shortages were at their worst.

"These have been significantly eased recently with the arrival of newly recruited officers.

"Already the regime for women at Eastwood Park is improving, and the prison is beginning to climb back to its previous much higher standards of care and decency."

'Intolerable burden'

Paul Cavadino, chief executive of crime reduction charity Nacro, said the courts were jailing too many women.

"The female prison population has rocketed from 1,300 at the end of 1992 to over 4,300 now. This is placing an intolerable burden on women's prisons.

"The Prison Service should not be expected to cope with an excessive number of women unnecessarily jailed by increasingly punitive courts."

Director of the Prison Reform Trust, Juliet Lyon, said women and girls were being imprisoned for the poverty, debt, homelessness, mental illness and the effects of drink and drugs.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Andy Tighe
"The total number of prisoners is at its highest rate ever"
Juliet Lyon, Prisons Reform Trust
"Essentially the overriding problem is we are sending too many people to prison"
Anne Owers, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons
"It requires a broad national strategy to tackle these issues"

Click here to go to BBC Gloucestershire
See also:

23 May 02 | England
29 Apr 02 | Scotland
02 May 02 | Scotland
20 Mar 02 | UK Politics
19 Mar 02 | England
01 Feb 02 | UK Politics
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