The female prison population has swelled by 76 per cent in the last four years, while the number of women convicted of serious offences has fallen by 16 per cent.
Today HM Inspector of Prisons will launch a new report, Women in Prison, seeking to address the causes of, and problems caused by, the massive increase.
But Petronella Davis, welfare advice officer at prison support group CAST, who visits inmates every week to help with debt counselling, says the reasons are clear. She says up to half the women she sees are there through debt, most often money owed to the DSS, home-shopping catalogues and store cards.
"Catalogues are a big problem. These women have no money, their children are desperate for new clothes or trainers, so they get them on credit. Then they can't afford to pay them off and it becomes a vicious circle," Ms Davis said.
"Often catalogue companies will wipe the interest and let them pay off a tiny amount a week. The problem is, if they keep the interest, it often means the debt never decreases."
She traces much of the problem back to the last government's decision to replace one-off single payments for items like furniture with loans.
"A lot of the stuff women do is related to poverty. They appear in court, their council tax or DSS loan starts being deducted from their benefits, they have to live off catalogues and credit to get out of that. We look at their income - often they have already got too much being deducted to survive.
"And then there are shop cards with over 30 per cent interest payments. A lot of these women do not understand figures - they're not going to read the small print. They just see it as a way of getting what they need."
This was backed up by the National Association of Probation Officers (NAPO), which last year carried out a survey into debtors' prison. A spokeswoman said: "From the case studies that came back we saw exactly these problems. To a large extent women should not be in prison because it was a matter of need. But the way our system is run means that debt is punished, and the mother dragged off and her children left behind."
Chris Tchaikovsky, director of the pressure group Women in Prison, said it was difficult to ascertain from Home Office figures how much crime was poverty-related. But from their case work, she estimated the figure was high.
"Poverty among women has increased, partly due to the rise in single parenthood, while the courts have become increasingly hard on women," she said. "Before more women are criminalised, we want them to ask - has every step been taken to stop them going to prison?"
All the organisations stressed that jailing a woman for debt can be counter-productive. "There are some women whose fine is less than it costs to lock them up for a week. If her child has to go into care, you've got that monetary cost, and then you've got the social cost," said Petronella Davis. "A lot of the women I see could do better with serious debt counselling."Reuse content