The way women are treated in prisons will leave England and Wales "aghast and ashamed" in years to come, the Chief Inspector of Prisons said today.
Nick Hardwick said the terrible levels of self-mutilation and despair in one women's unit "kept me awake at night" and the responsibility lies squarely at the door of successive governments.
In a highly-critical lecture, he said the circumstances of the women held in the Keller Unit of Styal Prison in Wilmslow, Cheshire, were "more shocking and distressing than anything I had yet seen on an inspection".
"We can't go on like this," he said.
"Prisons, particularly as they are currently run, are simply the wrong place for so many of the distressed, damaged or disturbed women they hold.
"I think the treatment and conditions in which a small minority of the most disturbed women are held is - in relation to their needs - simply unacceptable.
"I think - I hope - we will look back on how we treated these women in years to come, aghast and ashamed."
He added he wanted to be "clear where responsibility lies".
"It does not lie with the officers, staff and governors on the ground - many of whom are simply humbling in the dedication and care with which they approach their work - or the officials and others trying to improve things in the centre," he said.
"This is a responsibility that lies squarely at the door of successive governments and parliament."
Mr Hardwick was reflecting on the lack of progress in women's prisons since the 2007 Corston Report which outlined "the need for a distinct radically different, visibly-led, strategic, proportionate, holistic, woman-centred, integrated approach".
Giving a lecture at the University of Sussex tonight, he went on: "The fact of the matter is that the recommendations Baroness Corston set out would be an effective response to this scandal."
But without the "strategic recommendations for smaller prisons and greater visible senior leadership" she recommended, "further progress will be very limited", he said.
Mr Hardwick insisted he did not want to minimise the harm caused by women offenders, or suggest they were all victims, saying it was "a much more complicated picture than that".
But he said: "I have seen a lot of pretty grim things in my working life but what I saw at the Keller Unit kept me awake at night.
"The levels of self mutilation and despair were just terrible."
If men were as repeatedly violent to other prisoners in the way women prisoners were to themselves, it would be treated as "a national responsibility" whereas in the case of women, local prisons were left to manage as best they could, he said.
"If nothing else, for pity's sake, something should be done urgently to try and provide a proper place and care for these lost souls."
Women make up only 5% of the total prison population, but account for almost half of all self-harm incidents in prisons, he said.
And he questioned why the only dormitories he had seen were in women's prisons.
"It is a historical legacy I suppose but I suspect that if the same proportion of men were accommodated in dormitories, it would have been treated as a much greater priority," he said.
He added that a "long chain of men", from male wing officers and male governors to male prison chiefs and a male chief inspector, "may not be the best structure to respond to the physical and emotional needs of some very troubled women".
And while East Sutton Park, in Maidstone, Kent, and Askham Grange, in York, were good examples of women's prisons, others were "increasingly becoming multi-functional", taking on new roles "and holding women further away from home".
A "very high level of unmet mental health needs" also lay at the "heart of the issue", he said.
"A very significant part of the women's prison population need a level of care that a prison simply cannot provide and indeed, common sense would suggest that a prison was likely to make their condition worse," he said.
"The different needs and circumstances of men and women prisoners remain as stark today as they did when Baroness Corston wrote her report - little has changed."
Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust campaign group, said Mr Hardwick's speech "highlights the failure of successive governments and parliament to ensure effective accountability and oversight of women's justice".
"As the chief inspector makes clear, without proper measures to ensure women are a priority for government they will continue to be a neglected minority in the justice system," she said.
"The cost of this neglect can be counted in a depressing litany of wasted time, lives and money."
Ms Lyon went on: "With peers set to debate amendments to the Legal Aid and Sentencing Bill to reform women's justice, the Government has the opportunity to put an end to this damaging legacy of neglect and make good the extraordinary omission of women from the Bill."