One in 16 women prisoners are Yardie 'mules'

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The Independent Online

In the eyes of some judges they are female Yardies; members of the ruthless Jamaican crime gangs whose drug trafficking has spawned gun battles on Britain's streets. In reality, thewomen from the Caribbean island being sent to British jails are mostly poor,young mothers.

In the eyes of some judges they are female Yardies; members of the ruthless Jamaican crime gangs whose drug trafficking has spawned gun battles on Britain's streets. In reality, thewomen from the Caribbean island being sent to British jails are mostly poor,young mothers.

Women smugglers from Jamaica are being arrested so frequently at Heathrow and Gatwick airports that they account for one in 16 of the female prison population of England and Wales.

Their custody is costing £5m a year because Britain has no prisoner repatriation arrangement with their home country. And many of the 184 Jamaican women in jail are serving sentences of 10 years or more. However, most of the women would rather serve their terms in England than go home to the notorious Fort Augustus offshore penitentiary.

Prison chiefs, customs officers and the immigration service are becoming increasingly concerned. Hibiscus, an organisation providing support for the women, said last night that the Jamaican authorities should take drastic action to tackle the issue at source.

Olga Heaven, the director of Hibiscus, said education programmes and poster campaigns were needed in Jamaica to inform women that they faced jail terms of up to 16 years for carrying drugs: "The problem is driven by desperation and poverty. It is organised and they are targeting mothers who have no criminal records. Many have never travelled abroad. Women who knew the consequences would not go."

There is growing evidence that Jamaican groups are targeting hospitals in the Caribbean to recruit women who need money for medical treatment. Alured Darlington, a London solicitor, said "cynical and unscrupulous" criminals were exploiting vulnerable women. One of his recent clients, Evadne Jones, 46, received a six-year sentence for taking 540g of cocaine into Britain to raise money for a stomach cancer operation for her mother. "She was faced with an impossible choice. She was devoted to her mother and used to rock her to sleep to ease the pain. The court should have made more allowance for this," he said.

The problem is most serious at three women's prisons: Highpoint in Suffolk, Cookham Wood in Kent and Holloway in north London, each of which has about 50 such inmates. The Jamaican contingent of foreign nationals in women's jails, which does not including Britons of Jamaican descent, is more than five times the size of any other nationality, including Dutch, Irish and Americans.

In 1995, there were about 25 Jamaican women jailed in England, Hibiscus says. It adds that most of those being arrested are from two distinct areas; the deprived Garrison area of West Kingston and the more rural parish of St Catherine.

In men's prisons, there are 709 Jamaican inmates. They, too, are the largest foreign group, even outnumbering the 652-strong Irish contingent.

Other Caribbean nations, including Grenada and Trinidad and Tobago are signatories, unlike Jamaica, to a Commonwealth agreement that repatriates prisoners to serve similar sentences at home.

In the early Nineties, British prisons had a problem with female drugs "mules" from Nigeria, who numbered around 300. Drastic action by the Nigeria, including imposing additional sentences when the traffickers returned home, has been a deterrent. Only 20 Nigerian women are now held in this country.

Alex, whose name has been changed, is typical of the Jamaican inmates. During her first trip abroad, which has lasted two and a half years, she has seen little more than prison courtyards. The single parent, serving a five-year sentence in Highpoint prison, speaks to her four children once a month.

The 39-year-old was caught in 1997 carrying 327g of 100 per cent pure cocaine. She was offered 120,000 Jamaican dollars (£1,850) to smuggle the drug. She thought that it would pay for school fees and for her asthmatic son's hospital treatment. "I just jumped at it. I didn't think it would be dangerous," she said.

Alex said that she was glad to be serving her time in English jails - "it's like being in a college" she said - and hopes to use her prison hairdressing training to start a business when she returns home. But she is dismayed at the constant stream of new Jamaican arrivals. "It isn't worth it," she said. "You end up suffering and losing your kids... your life mashed up."