Deaths at a women's prison in Cheshire are to be investigated by the Prisons Ombudsman.
Eleven women have died in prison this year
The inquiry will primarily focus on the death of prisoner Julie Walsh at Styal Prison last week - the fourth at the jail in 2003 and sixth in 12 months.
It is the first time the Prison Service has allowed an independent investigation into a death in custody.
Another inmate, 18-year-old Sarah Campbell, died at the same prison near Wilmslow in January after taking an overdose of anti-depressants.
The investigation by ombudsman Stephen Shaw will replace the normal internal Prison Service
inquiry, and aims to be completed by mid-September.
Home Office Minister Paul Goggins said the investigation would examine Ms Walsh's death and whether it bore any similarities to other recent deaths at the jail.
"I have concluded that it is time for someone independent of the Prison Service to take a fresh look at the difficulties Styal
has faced," he said.
But he commended the efforts of the prison staff who were doing "an extremely professional job in
Suicides on the increase
Ms Walsh, 39, from the Liverpool area, died of a suspected overdose on 12 August.
She was awaiting sentence for theft and motoring offences.
Prison reform groups claim increasingly overcrowded jails are leading to higher suicide rates.
Across all prisons there have been 61 apparent suicides in 2003 up from 55 this time last year.
Ms Walsh brings to 11 the total number of deaths at a female prison this year.
The Home Office's decision marks a significant strengthening of the powers of the prisons
and probation ombudsman.
A Prison Service spokeswoman said a new system of
independent investigations would not take effect until the 2005/6 financial year.
She said: "We need to be satisfied that procedures are correct. This has been on the cards for some time."
Frances Crook, Director of the Howard League for Penal Reform called on Mr Shaw to hold public sessions, insisting the inquiry must "delve deep".
"The public too should be engaged in the process, so that everyone
understands the tragedy of the deaths of these women, and lessons are learnt and
The Howard League is campaigning in favour of community sentences for women instead of prison terms.
"Women can make amends for what they have done and be helped to change their
lives, but not in prison," Ms Crook said.
The inquiry has been welcomed by the crime reduction charity Nacro (National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders).
Spokeswoman Jackie Worrall said: "A single prison
suicide is one death too many.
"But last year there were 94 in England and Wales".