Bleak picture of abuse inside women's prisons

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Women inmates are having to endure "unacceptable" conditions at least a third of the country's female jails, with widescale abuse and overcrowding, the chief inspector of prisons revealed yesterday.

Prison officials admitted yesterday that there were only enough free cells for women inmates to last another two to three weeks. The overcrowding crisis has been caused by a rapid rise in the number of women being jailed.

Inspections at three jails in England found serious flaws in the way women are being dealt with, and provided a depressing picture of understaffed establishments grappling with deteriorating regimes and conditions.

They also identified a growing problem of female inmates forcibly removing drugs hidden inside fellow prisoners.

In response to calls by Sir David Ramsbotham, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, to appoint a Director of Women's Prisons, the Prison Service yesterday announced it was setting up a new unit to consider the problems of female inmates.

Sir David also echoed penal reformers complaints that that the prison officials were not taking into account the different needs of women inmates to those of male offenders.

The inspections took place at Holloway prison in north London, the female unit at Risley, Cheshire, and the women's wing at Low Newton, Durham.

Sir David said that significant improvements had been made at Holloway since he took the unprecedented step in December 1995 of withdrawing his team in protest, but still found a catalogue of problems, including "very serious intimidation and violence".

He also reported the practice of "crutching" in which women inmates who concealed drugs inside their bodies were overpowered by other prisoners who then forcibly removed the drugs for their own use.

A security review was highly critical and found that there was no closed- circuit television on the perimeter fence. Suicide prevention systems had "sloppy and dangerous" record-keeping, which was to be "deplored", said the report.

Conditions at Low Newton, which houses 57 women in a wing designed to accommodate no more than 40, were described as "unacceptable" and "must not be allowed to continue". Sir David added: "The problems are twofold - too many prisoners and not enough staff. Urgent action is required."

He went on: "For far too long the training of staff to work in women's prisons has been neglected by the Prison Service, and the chickens are coming home to roost."

At Risley, conditions were also "unacceptable". Chronic staff shortage and prisoners being locked in their cells except for meal times were reported to the inspectors. Urinals were also still in place in the toilets. There was also evidence of "crutching".

Richard Tilt, director general of the Prison Service, said the over crowding was caused because the female population rose 23 per cent last year to a total of 2,438. While insisting that many of the problems identified in Sir David's reports had been rectified since the inspections, Mr Tilt acknowledged that the rising prison population, combined with a tight budget, presented the service with real problems.

He added: "We are a cash-limited service, we have finite resources. But we are doing the best we can under the circumstances we find ourselves in."