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Last Updated: Sunday, 13 June, 2004, 13:46 GMT 14:46 UK
A view from inside Styal Prison

By Sara Wadeson
BBC Manchester

It is hard to even talk about women's prisons without someone mentioning a TV programme - and that goes for inside and outside the jail.

"It's absolutely nothing like bad girls - I hate that programme, I hate watching it," is the first thing women on the inside want to tell you.

Painting and decorating workshop at Styal Prison
There is a waiting list to get a job painting and decorating at Styal

The myths that surround women's prisons are well established - journalists spend hours reporting from outside the prison gates on drugs, suicides and satellite televisions.

What is surprising is how keen the women are to tell their story. So many of them follow the same hopeless plotline.

80% are addicts, many of whom steal to feed 150-a-day addictions to crack cocaine.

The case of 34-year-old Diane is typical. A heroin addict for 20 years, she has been in and out of Styal so many times they might as well fit a revolving door.

Styal also houses women who have committed serious crimes, like Marie who killed her husband and is partway through a 15-year stretch.

Waite Wing in Styal Prison
I questioned why they called it Waite (after the hostage Terry Waite) when the guy spent five years chained to a radiator.
Soo McMillan, prisoner
The prison itself is a bizarre setting. Nestling in affluent rural Cheshire on the site of a former Victorian orphanage, it is effectively two prisons in one.

The main prison made up of the original red brick houses and the new wing, home to the most violent offenders and remand prisoners.

It is where all of the prison's problems centre.

Julie, a 42-year-old grandmother from Manchester, is serving four months there for shoplifting and says she cannot remember how many times she has been in and out.

"They describe me as a persistent offender, an entrenched user, they've written me off but if I could get off the drugs there'd be no crime, I haven't written myself off yet," she says.

"Smoking heroin off aluminium foil has poisoned my lungs, given me pleurisy, severe asthma and pneumonia. I still really don't know if I can resist heroin when I get out."

Styal is the second biggest women's prison in the UK but, effectively, it is Holloway's poor northern relation, receiving 25,000 per prisoner compared to 41,000 for inmates of the London jail.

Workshop at Styal Prison
Women can learn new skills in the textiles workshop

Recent critical inspection reports have called for more funding to pay for staff to deal with the severe mental health problems, addictions, low literacy and poor health many inmates experience.

And the most vulnerable women go straight into the worst possible place for them - the wing - where all the deaths in custody have happened.

Soo McMillan is a lifer and lives in one of the original houses where she is serving a 14-year sentence.

"The wing is a nightmare," she says. "I questioned why they called it Waite (after the hostage Terry Waite) when the guy spent five years chained to a radiator.

"On the wing you are in a cell on your own and can be for up to 20 hours a day.

"It's noise constantly - even when you are locked in people are shouting and the more they shout the more the noise level goes up - it's like that till sometimes four in the morning."

Houses at Styal Prison
Lower risk prisoners are kept in the houses rather than on the wing

Steve Hall, the new governor, is making major changes including the recommendations made in a recent critical report.

He said: "There is now a real opportunity to build on the groundwork done by my predecessor and make our systems and procedures work more effectively to deliver the care that women in Styal need.

"Some of the changes include increasing the amount of purposeful activity for prisoners, developing a new 25 bed first night centre, recruiting new nurses and reducing the amount of time women spend in the segregation cells."

He says he is determined to support the prisoners and the staff through the challenges and difficulties that lie ahead.

And he will have to be. If expansion plans, currently under scrutiny at government level, get approval, Styal will double in size and become the biggest women's prison in Europe.

The BBC's Sara Wadeson
"Spending your first night in prison is a frightening experience..."

Teenage prisoner dies in hospital
21 Jan 03  |  England

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