The terror inside women's prisons

A new book reveals the horrific truth about bullying, addicition and violence among female inmates.
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HANNAH THOMPSON, the young violinist jailed two weeks ago for drug smuggling, had to be moved from Holloway because of vicious bullying and death threats from other prisoners who threatened to cut off the tops of her fingers.

Women bullying other women in prison is not new, but there is a new and much more terrifying form of bullying which is turning prisons into very dangerous places indeed.

One summer afternoon I spent an hour interviewing Carrie, a bright, witty woman in her early thirties, the mother of four small children. We sat chatting in the recreation room at HMP Brockhill, as other women played pool nearby. As we parted, Carrie told me she had been "shipped" to Brockhill as a punishment for her part in a violent bullying incident at another prison: "I held the door while five women attacked another woman to get her drugs." This amicable, intelligent woman? It seemed inconceivable. "Women are so supportive of each other in prison - with one exception: when they're involved in drugs. I was addicted to smack and you do anything to get it - 99 per cent of the bullying in women's prisons is drugs related."

As I went from one prison to another, I began to assemble the jigsaw puzzle of terror and cruelty that is the prison drugs scene. I saw hints of it in the panic of young girls being allocated to other prisons, begging officers not to send them to jails where there would be "girls waiting to get us for grassing".

"Drugs are causing terrible intimidation and brutality in women's prisons," said a senior woman officer. "But it's all being hushed up. It is a conspiracy of silence. Governors - particularly male governors - won't admit this is happening in the women's prisons they run. They can't face the fact that women will do such things to each other. But until they do admit it, these terrible incidents will continue."

The particular activity that male staff allegedly find hard to accept is vaginal searching, known to prisoners as "de-crutching". The commonest way for drugs to be smuggled into prison by women visitors is by "crutching". Packed in a condom or the finger of a plastic surgical glove, drugs are inserted into the vagina, sometimes wrapped in mint leaves to foil the sniffer dogs. "I have seen women smile and pat the dogs," said another officer. `They know we can't touch them. We strip-search prisoners after visits, but internal examination would be classed as assault."

The drugs are transferred during the visit to the prisoner, who may have been forced by other prisoners to set up the visit solely for this purpose. Should this woman decide to keep the drugs for herself, then the problems start. Stronger prisoners lie in wait, often in the holding-room outside the visits area, and in a toilet or alcove forcibly remove the drugs she has concealed.

Della, a Holloway prisoner, describes a well organised system: "There are strong women at the head of the drugs rackets and they appoint others as middlemen, or runners to do their dirty work for them. The weakest women are made to bring in the drugs. They pass them on to the middlemen, then the leaders distribute them."

Of course, internal concealment is not unique to women. As a woman officer says, "Male prisoners have orifices too." Male prison slang has plenty of words for anal concealment (bottling, chubbing, plugging). But because of the stereotype of women as being gentler, it is taking longer to accept that the practice exists in women's jails. Even harder to countenance are the vicious methods used by other addicts to seize the smuggled drugs for themselves.

"Addicts can be unbelievably ruthless to get their drugs," says one officer. "The middlemen are known as `searchers'. They wear surgical gloves stolen from the hospital wing, lubricated with butter. They may use plastic spoons or spatulas and the victims are in terrible fear, especially if they were abused as children. There are often dreadful results - miscarriage, severe physical damage - it can even end in suicide. The victim is told that if she keeps quiet, it won't hurt so much. The whole process can be carried out in less than a minute. We call the police but the witnesses are often the perpetrators' assistants, so their evidence is tainted."

I was taken on a tour round the grounds of an open prison by the male chaplain. As we passed a squat brick building he told me this was "the block". I assumed this segregation unit was not much used in an open prison. The chaplain looked uncomfortable: "Well, it is used occasionally. Just the other day a girl had to be put in there because she'd gone absolutely berserk, smashed every stick of furniture in her room. She'd been the victim of a serious sexual assault. They were after getting the drugs off her and - well, they'd used forks on the poor soul.'

In that prison, 10 of the 23 women I interviewed referred, unprompted, to "the forks incident": "Some of the drugs girls got a woman in the showers and tore her up inside to get her drugs," said one. "It could stop her ever having children."

There is no doubt that the Prison Service has been aware of such attacks for some time. In June 1996 the subject was discussed at a seminar on bullying in women's prisons, held at HMP New Hail, Yorkshire. In July last year. Sir David Ramsbotham, Chief Inspector of Prisons, published a major review of women's prisons and referred to "serious assaults reportedly carried out on women by other women prisoners searching for drugs that had been internally concealed". He regretted that "no central policy exists to highlight the different aspects of bullying among women prisoners".

Yet despite the authorities' awareness, the bullying continues, exacerbated by the Prison Service's drug-testing policy. Prisoners insist that random urine tests cause prisoners to switch from cannabis (which remains detectable for up to 30 days) to heroin and cocaine (which remain for only about 48 hours, and can be used over a weekend without fear of detection). As one prisoner told me, "The girls have started going off dope and on to crack. The trouble is, crack makes you aggressive."

Many women say they try to avoid "those crackheads" whom they blame for much of the bullying and threats to other prisoners and staff. A senior officer showed me photographs of a deep wound in the upper arm of a female colleague bitten by an HIV-positive prisoner crazed by sub-standard crack.

Drugs offences account for one third of female crimes, and many more are drug-related. Two-thirds of the 150 women I interviewed had been jailed for such offences. One governor estimates that 90 per cent of her incoming prisoners are drug-users. Many turn to drugs to "numb out" memories of childhood abuse, sadness and guilt about children left at home. Peer pressure turns others into addicts. In today's overcrowded jails, where education and rehabilitation programmes are slashed to pay for tougher security, there is little incentive to fight a habit, and little help to do so. Drugs are emotional props, "bird-killers" to help women do their time, and they will stop at nothing to get them.

It would be wrong to underplay the positive relationships that can be formed in prison. I met women who had been isolated by abusive men from contact with other women. To them prison is an escape, a place where for the first time they can make women friends. But, like male prisoners, women in prison quickly learn to subscribe to a "nick culture" where bullying is endemic. They learn to identify and ostracise the untouchables of the prison caste system: the "grasses" who, like Hannah Thompson, agree to co-operate with police; and the "nonces" who have harmed children or old people.

Research into gender and bullying shows that girls and women rely less on physical brutality (though this can be part of it) than on social exclusion. Women who have done time in Holloway agree that it is the worst prison for bullying - hardly surprising, as it is western Europe's largest women's jail and houses a shifting, volatile population of about 500 women, mostly remand prisoners, two-thirds of whom will spend just 28 days there.

This month Nicola Boshell, a 19-year-old single mother addicted to heroin and cannabis, was the first woman to come before England's new drugs court. Wakefield magistrates sent her to a community treatment programme instead of prison. Drug-related prison bullying will stop only when more addicts such as Nicola are diverted from custody. Yet the Prison Service is planning to create 1,000 new places for women prisoners this year and next. Surely the money could be better spent on community alternatives?

All names have been changed.

`Invisible Women: What's Wrong with Women's Prisons?' (Waterside Press, pounds 18) is published tomorrow