Action on scandal of women in jail

For years, the female prison population has been rising as more and more are locked up – often for minor offences. But Maria Eagle, the Justice minister, has decided that enough is enough

Too many women are being jailed for petty crimes and the Government must cut the number of female prison inmates, the Justice minister has told The Independent.

The total of imprisoned women in England and Wales doubled in the past decade to 4,460. Maria Eagle, the Justice minister, said too many vulnerable and mentally-ill female offenders are being locked up, and that the Government could achieve a "significant" cut of hundreds, to the point where some women's prisons could be closed.

The Justice Ministry will promise extra money to community programmes aimed at rehabilitating repeat petty criminals, such as shoplifters, who would otherwise be jailed. Ms Eagle will ask magistrates to look at alternatives to jail for female offenders, many of whom have young children.

Ministers are also optimistic about removing many of the 900 foreigners in women's prisons, particularly the Jamaican and Nigerian "drug mules" caught by immigration officers.

"We are working hard to try and get proper prisoner transfer arrangements in place," said Ms Eagle. "If we can get those sorted out, women drug mules will be the type of person you would want to send back."

The ministry hopes to see the first falls within six months – it will have to reverse a trend that has already seen the number of female inmates rise by 139 in seven months – and to achieve reductions of "hundreds" within two years.

"For those who are dangerous and serious offenders, prison is the right place and we need to make sure that our custodial estate is available to hold those who really ought to be there," Ms Eagle said.

But she added that "an awful lot of the rest" could be better supervised and rehabilitated in the community: "Clearly there is big scope here for diverting a significant proportion."

She pointed to the one-third of female inmates who had never been in prison before and to the high numbers who were remanded in custody awaiting trial but not subsequently jailed – with obvious implications for childcare in some cases. She added that 80 per cent of women prisoners had mental health problems and that many were multiple drug users.

Aides confirmed later that the ministry's aim was to reverse the increase in women prisoners, starting to reduce numbers within 12 months. They believe hundreds can be taken off the total as beefed-up community sentences that force women to tackle deep-seated problems are encouraged around the country.

Ms Eagle said she would be pushing for cash spent on locking women up to be channelled into developing programmes that keep women out of jail in the first place. "This can be a virtuous circle," she said. "We spend about £35,000 a year keeping a woman in prison – you could achieve a lot in the community using that kind of money. There's a big prize here if we can keep the focus and the forward momentum."

She said the department intended to "engage more" with magistrates to convince them to jail fewer women.

"We need to give them confidence in community sentencing at a local level by having provision that is suitable for women and by having arrangements... that can tackle the revolving door that can be women's offending."

She admitted that the Government had until recently failed to face up to the problems faced by female offenders, which include histories of domestic abuse and inmate suicide. Routine strip-searching of prisoners – attacked by critics as degrading, particularly as many female offenders have suffered abuse – is due to be banned by the end of the year.

"It is almost inevitable that when women are only 5 per cent of the jail population that this has not been at the top of the list of things to do," she said.

The drive to divert female offenders from jail would enable the prison service to make conditions more suitable for women who cannot be released and eventually close some of England's 14 women's prisons, she added.

Ministers have been impressed with the Yorkshire-based Together Women programme and the Women's Turnaround Project, based in Cardiff, which advise offenders on training, housing, drug abuse and looking after their children.

A recent report by Baroness Corston, a former Labour MP, called for an overhaul of the Government's approach to women's offending. She suggested that female offenders could be held in a network of small jails, holding just 20 to 30 women each.

But Ms Eagle said the idea had been ruled out, amid fears that such small units could be "claustrophobic" and prone to bullying. She added: "The size is just not sufficient to enable us economically to provide the sorts of services in each of these places that you would want to provide."

Cruel and unnecessary: the detention of women in Britain

Prisoners' stories...

* Lesley Butt was on the streets at the age of 12 after her parents broke up, and was arrested at 14. Her third prison sentence was six years for drug dealing. She kicked her habit and since her release has been reunited with her sons, and gives talks at schools.

* Aimee and her husband had been together since she was 16, but after 10 years he left her and their nine-year-old son. Desperate for money, she dealt cocaine. She was sentenced to eight years in prison. "Every time I saw my boy, I could feel him slipping away," she said. "I was transferred to three different prisons, which made visiting difficult. So instead, I'd write to him and send pictures."

* Petra Blanksby was abused from the age of five, and was raped in a children's home aged 14. After several breakdowns, she was charged with arson and remanded in New Hall prison, Wakefield, where staff recorded at least 90 attempts at self-harm. Eventually, she hanged herself with a shoelace and died aged 19.

* Cheryl spent two and a half years in prison for a "white collar" crime connected with her husband's business. "I was not someone with mental health problems, but I developed them. My pain was caused mainly by the separation from my daughter."

Voices
Hunted: A stag lies dead on Jura, where David Cameron holidays and has himself stalked deer
voicesThe Scotland I know is becoming a playground for the rich
News
Russell Brand has written a book of political analysis called Revolution
peopleFilm star says he is 'not interested in making money anymore'
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has refused to deny his involvement in the upcoming new Star Wars film
filmBenedict Cumberbatch reignites those Star Wars rumours
News
newsMcKamey Manor says 'there is no escape until the tour is completed'
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Chastain during an interview in Los Angeles.
filmsOscar hopeful Jessica Chastain reveals the secret to her breakthrough success
News
people

Britain First criticised for using actress's memory to draw attention to their 'hate-filled home page'

News
news
Life and Style
Meow! ... Again, Kim Kardashian goes for a sexy Halloween costume, wrapping her body with a latex catsuit and high heeled knee boots
fashionFrom Heidi Klum to Kim Kardashian
News
news

Emergency call 'started off dumb, but got pretty serious'

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch
tv

Greatest mystery about the hit BBC1 show is how it continues to be made at all, writes Grace Dent

News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge
booksChristmas comes early for wizard fans
Arts and Entertainment
filmsOculus Rift offers breathtakingly realistic simulation of zero gravity
Sport
footballAccording to revelations from Sergio Aguero's new biography
Life and Style
tech

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker