A review of the treatment of female inmates has been ordered by ministers after an investigation into a series of suicides concluded that too many vulnerable women were being locked up.
Stephen Shaw, the Prisons Ombudsman, said the use of imprisonment for women with drug and mental health problems was "disproprotionate and ineffective".
He called for a rethink by the courts as he issued his long-awaited inquiry into six suicides in 12 months at Styal prison, Cheshire, including the death of a heroin addict, Julie Walsh.
Ms Walsh, 39, a mother of two children, died after drinking the drug dothiepin that had been stolen from a prison medicine trolley. She went into a violent fit and was dead within four hours.
The alarm was not raised when an empty dothiepin bottle was found and there were delays in contacting a on nurse when the alarm was raised by a cellmate. Mr Shaw demanded better training of prison officers, improved control of medicines and better mental health care in Styal. He called for the jail's Waite wing, where five of the six deaths occurred, to be refurbished.
He said that failures by staff had contributed to the deaths and denounced the "inadequacy of the regime and procedures in place at Styal".
Publication of the report had been delayed until all six inquests had been concluded and the Prison Service said that "many important changes" had been made at Styal since the spate of deaths, including giving extra help to new prisoners and those identified as suicidal.
Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: "If anyone needed to be convinced that locking up damaged, vulnerable women in a bleak prison is wrong and can have fatal consequences, they need look no further than the painstaking evidence gathered in this report."
Deborah Coles, the co-director of Inquest, a penal reform group, attacked the delays in producing the report. She said: "Since the deaths at Styal, another 30 women have died in prisons around the country."
The Government is allocating £9m to finding alternatives to jail for vulnerable women. The female prison population stands at 4,599, an increase of 255 (6 per cent) over the last year.
It indicated yesterday it was also setting up an independent inquiry into the support given to women inmates who could be at risk of killing or harming themselves.Reuse content