By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine
As the prison population rises, more and more women are being locked up. Critics, however, believe women offenders should be treated differently from men and now the government has outlined plans to build female rehabilitation centres as an alternative to jail.
The fact the female prison population has nearly trebled in the last 10 years will be of little concern to some people. The punishment fits the crime, they may say.
But the government is investigating another option. Home Secretary Charles Clarke has just allocated £9m to build two new female rehabilitation centres, following two pioneering schemes in Glasgow and Worcester. Mr Clarke is concerned that locking up women breaks up families.
The new "community and support centres" will offer non-violent female offenders "one-stop shop" services for help with issues such as drug abuse, mental health, housing, childcare and domestic violence.
Campaigners say the rocketing numbers of women prisoners is a shocking story because most female offences are theft-related and the causes of female crime differ to male crime, so require a different response.
WOMEN IN PRISON
Female prison population 4,392 at March 2005, up 173% in 10 years
Male 70,857, up 50% for same period
16% of women in prison committed violent offences
50% report domestic violence, one-third childhood sexual abuse
5% of children of women prisoners are cared for at home by the father
Source: Prison Service, Women in Prison charity
For instance, they claim that half of women prisoners - far more than men - have suffered physical, sexual or mental abuse.
Sarah Campbell, 18, died in Styal Prison, Cheshire, in 2003 after taking a drugs overdose. She had 12 months left of her sentence for manslaughter, a crime which her mother Pauline says was partly driven by events in her childhood.
"Sarah was sexually abused when a child and this affected her self-esteem, which was as low as being almost non-existent. There were other factors too, but her card was marked from an early age."
Abused women use drugs and alcohol to blot it out and they need help and treatment, not jail, says Mrs Campbell.
'Tough on crime'
One in three women in prison attempts suicide, says Andrew Mackie of the Revolving Doors Agency, which campaigns for better provision in the criminal justice system for people with mental illness. The separation from children can lead to acute anxiety, despair and self-harm, he adds.
So why has the female prison population risen so quickly? Vera Baird MP claimed last year there was an "anti-feminist backlash" in the courts.
The Fawcett Society, where Charles Clarke made his announcement, says the single most common offence for which women are sentenced to prison is shoplifting and they are twice as likely to be sent to prison for this crime as 10 years ago.
Sarah Campbell took a drugs overdose in prison
"There's a 'tough on crime' message and a notion in the public arena that women are increasingly turning to violent crimes, with media stories about girl gangs," says senior policy officer Holly Dustin.
"But the fact is women offending patterns are not getting significantly worse, and not related to the number of women in prison."
Some evidence suggests women also suffer from harsher sentences if they don't appear vulnerable in court, she adds.
Does this mean putting women's needs ahead of men's?
"We're not asking for them to be treated better but appropriately," says Ms Dustin.
That's not a view shared by everyone, including Norman Brennan, founder of the Victims of Crime Trust. "There's more women in jail than ever in this country because more women are committing more violent, serious and persistent crimes.
"It's nonsense to say there's too many women in prison. Judges and magistrates already bend over backwards not to send women to prison, so the prison population should actually be higher.
"I've no problem with people being rehabilitated but a number of women are so hardened to crime they, just like men, see it as no more than a short respite."
Any history of abuse is already taken into account in pre-sentence reports, he says.
The home secretary disagrees and believes the solution may lie in Glasgow, where a project called 218 Time Out is regarded as a model in dealing with women offenders. The two new centres, in unnamed locations in England and Wales, may be run along similar lines.
218 Time Out receives referrals from courts, social workers and police across the country. It works as an alternative to prison and combines a detox facility, residential unit and day programmes, to reduce re-offending and drug abuse.
The first of its kind in the UK when set up last year, it advises offenders on housing, childcare, benefits, drug use, interpersonal communications and self-esteem. The women are usually convicted of non-violent crimes, but some have attempted murder under provocation.
"Usually by the end of the second programme they've stopped re-offending," says service manager Sophia Young. "There seems to be a serious problem in England with re-offending and suicide rates, all the problems that we had and we're trying to address here."