Confidential security instructions issued to governors two weeks ago have overturned the previous policy which allowed all but the most dangerous women to travel freely.
Prison reform groups condemned the move as "barbaric". They warned that ministers' concern with security was costing the Treasury millions of pounds.
Previous instructions to governors told them not to handcuff any woman unless they "had reason to believe that the inmate will pose security or control problems." The new rules call for every woman to be restrained as soon as she leaves a jail.
"Category A" offenders, the handful of dangerous women criminals, must always be handcuffed to an officer, they state. All the other 2,000 female inmates should be held by a 6ft-8ft "closeting chain" - with one end attached to a bracelet round a prisoner's wrist and the other to an officer.
The change was made because civil servants were worried about more women prisoners escaping. The Prison Service was unable to give figures. But one source said: "There has been an increase that looks high in percentage terms, but the numbers involved are still minute. Hardly any women go on the run."
Stephen Shaw, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: "Governors with women who needed to be transferred to open prisons would give them the fare and tell them to make their own way.This is a completely unnecessary change. What are children meant to think when they see their mothers handcuffed? What are male escorts going to do when women are in hospital?"
A Prison Service spokeswoman emphasised that the handcuffs, bracelets and chains used on women were "ratchet" type, which were less restrictive than those used on men.
Just over 2,000 women are now in prison - 37 per cent more than two years ago. The numbers jailed because they could not or would not pay court fines for minor offences, such as not having a TV licence, almost doubled between 1992 and 1994.Reuse content