Numbers of women prisoners rise sharply

Unfairer sex: Court prejudice blamed for pressure on jails
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Home Affairs Correspondent

Women's prisons are overflowing because women are treated far more harshly than men by the criminal justice system, according to a study released today.

Debtors, petty and first-time offenders have swollen the female prison population to all-time record levels, although there has also been some increase in the number of young women jailed for violence.

Yesterday it was disclosed that the Prison Service has ordered that all women prisoners be handcuffed or chained to an officer for escorted outside visits because of an increase in escapes. Previously, all but the most dangerous women prisoners were allowed to travel freely.

The prison population study, by the National Association of Probation Officers, has found a 40 per cent rise in the number of women incarcerated in the last two years, taking the daily population through the 2,000 barrier for the first time and forcing the Government to provide an extra 120 places, including a 60-bed unit within Winchester men's prison. About 4,400, a third of all the women sent to prison last year, are debtors.

The union's study found that 80 per cent of those jailed are unemployed or on benefit, and that many of those facing short sentences were thieves trying to feed themselves or their children - many of whom end up in care while their mothers serve their sentence.

One such case was that of Gail Moore, 28, who was jailed for 14 days for TV fine default. She had no previous convictions, her partner had been killed in a car crash six months earlier and her two children, aged three and one, had to be taken into care while she was in Holloway.

Another, Denise Sinclair, 20, who has a three-month-old baby, was sentenced to 56 days jail for attempted deception involving pounds 92. She had no previous convictions, was living on benefit in a small flat and there was evidence to suggest that she had been led by an accomplice.

A third was Francesca Johnson, 24, with an 18-month-old son and another on the way, who was jailed for six months for possessing cannabis with intent to supply. It was said to be a small amount for friends.

Jenny Coort, 20, was imprisoned for throwing empty bottles during a demonstration. She had no previous convictions, was remanded in custody and sentenced to 28 days. She took an overdose. Had these offenders been men, say probation officers, it is unlikely they would have received a jail sentence.

Statistics show that 35 per cent of all women jailed were first-time offenders compared with just 12 per cent of men. Eleven per cent of men were jailed for theft compared with 23 per cent of women.

Harry Fletcher, the union's assistant general secretary, said: "There does appear to be evidence of discrimination. The dramatic increase in female prison numbers is expensive and unnecessary. Most of the increase is attributable to women with convictions for theft and fraud, who are in multiple debt and have dependent children, and who would be better and more constructively punished in the community."

The union estimates that if the majority of women sentenced for theft and fraud were supervised in the community, the daily prison population would drop by 500, easing overcrowding and, with jail costing over pounds 500 a week per woman prisoner, saving at least pounds 1m a month.

The new security policy, which has angered prison reform groups, means that all 2,500 women in prison must wear the cuffs whenever they visit hospital, courts or even their children. The Prison Service said the move to using ratchet type handcuffs came into force in April because of the number of women who were escaping.

Previously, ratchet handcuffs, which are lighter and less restrictive than the kind used on male prisoners, were worn only in certain circumstances.