Lynne Bowles prefers working in male prisons. 'Women are taught to go and get a man and then go in a corner and make a life,' she says. 'We don't go about in herds and we become very independent. The prison system, which is designed for men, does not take that into account.'

A sign on her desk at Whitemoor High Security Prison reads: 'The best man for the job is a woman.' Ms Bowles, 37, is a governor of the prison, which opened in spring 1991, built on fenland outside March, near Peterborough. She is also vice-president of the Prison Governors' Association.

Ms Bowles joined the service 10 years ago on a 'fast track' scheme after university. She spent only three months as a prison officer, a job she admires but admits she was not very suited to. She prefers her current governor's role as Head of Inmate Activities, which means she manages everything from the budget to carpentry workshops.

Whitemoor is one of six prisons of its kind in Britain. Known as 'Category A', or high security, it houses some of the country's most dangerous and disturbed inmates.

'Around half of our inmates are so-called ordinary prisoners and the other 250 are vulnerable, and are segregated for their own protection. The difficulty is making sure the two groups never meet,' says Ms Bowles. Prior to our interview, she had been trying to coax a 21-year-old with a conviction for murdering his cellmate to make his way to the punishment block without wearing his grey 'hospital' coat.

'Any unusual item of clothing, possession or whatever means you are different and therefore privileged, no matter what stigma is attached to it, such as a grey coat that means you are mentally ill. This inmate wouldn't go anywhere without it and I had to make sure he wasn't smuggling a weapon into the adjudication block.'

Lynne Bowles joined the prison service because she was interested in law and order and intrigued by people and what makes them tick. Most important, she thought she might be able to do some good.

'Containing human beings against their will means that even in the kindest regime there is oppression when you restrict people's freedom. If you take that freedom away in a building that is more than 100 years old, it gets worse. Take away toilet facilities and it's a bit worse still, and so on. I imagined I might be the sort of person who could go into that environment and remain, possibly, balanced - and maybe do some good.'

The Prison Department aims to recruit positively, hiring women and people from ethnic minorities - although it has problems with both groups.

'I think that, in general, on any issue you care to mention, prison reflects our society outside. It magnifies some issues and others become irrelevant, but in the main we are still fairly sexist, fairly racist, and we judge people only on the basis that they are female or black, or fat for that matter. We are very judgemental, and when you come into prison these judgements do not go away, but are heightened,' Ms Bowles says.

The effect of women working in male prisons is a subject of much interest to her. She is keen to see more women recruited into the service and believes that only then will current problems diminish. She says women have made an impact, but adds that 'it needs to be studied, and we should not make assumptions'. However, she also admits that there are still 'incidents' on landings where female officers work - sometimes more than on all-male landings.

'When the police started to bring women on to the beat they had problems based on folklore, but the problems disappeared when more women were recruited. If a woman was not settling in, they could then say: 'That woman is not doing well, but the other 20 are'. People say: 'Wouldn't it be nice to put a woman on every landing?' and my response is no, put three on one and two on another. I know what it's like to be a token, all the hopes and fears and judgements rest on you, and you have to be perfect or it's 'Oh, look, women can't do it'.'

The majority of inmates at Whitemoor will be there for a very long time, and it is this factor that determines the nature of inmates' relationships with female staff.

'Men who are starting, say, a 21-year sentence find it hard to live alongside the gender they miss so much, and I am not talking about sex. They have also lost their source of emotional support, affection and companionship, which on a short-term basis is fine, but what we have yet to establish is what happens over years.

'Women have worked in prisons for many years, don't forget, as probation officers, education staff and trainers,' adds Ms Bowles, 'but what we are talking about is a power relationship on the landing. When a very junior female office has to manage that, it is a bit more difficult. There are problems and there is no point pretending they don't exist.'

She has reservations about the long-term effectiveness of women in the moral guardian role.

'I've seen inmates and governors take down rude posters and curb their swearing 'in front of the ladies' but they resent it enormously. They see it as a man's world, and if we take away some of their alternative outlets for getting rid of their aggression, it can be dangerous.

'Also, it is unfair to put them in a situation where they can argue with a woman but cannot conclude a disagreement with a good old-fashioned punch-up. 'I can't hit her, it's not fair,' they say. We would be on to a winner if this could extend to: 'I will not hit this person,' and not just women.'

The shortage of women in the system is caused by our image of prison, says Ms Bowles. 'Violent, oppressive, dangerous, working with rapists, all of those things. Going back to prison being a reflection of society, the attitude is: 'Women should not have to deal with that. They should be pushing a baby buggy through the park in the sunshine'. That, sadly, is our view of women, still.

'I have inmates who say: 'She shouldn't be a prison officer, she's too pretty.' We cannot afford to be portrayed as nice and lovely, mother figures who will soothe the fevered brow. We need to be tough, firm, fair and assertive when necessary and the sorts of skills needed are, for instance, getting dressed quickly in control- and-restraint gear to help retake a wing where prisoners are rioting.'

Inmates who know Lynne Bowles have been known to warn newcomers against harassing her.

'I have a reputation for being straight, but I will not be mucked about. I will not go around tearing strips off people or imposing my authority, but if you feel insecure, you become aggressive, and then you are on to a loser, because men are not used, in the main, to women ordering them about. It is then that you get the old 'Show us your parts' as you walk across the exercise yard.'

Ms Bowles believes one great advantage that women bring to male prisons is their openness.

'Women admit to being under stress, which encourages men to be more open about their emotions. Some of the kindest men I have ever met work in the prisons, but when they boast 'We are not frightened' I think, well, that's funny, because I was.'

(Photograph omitted)