State of women's jails shames Britain, says prisons inspector

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Britain should be "aghast and ashamed" at the way it is treating some of the most disturbed women in its jails where levels of self-mutilation remain shockingly high, the chief inspector of prisons said last night.

Nick Hardwick said he had been kept awake at night by scenes he had seen at Styal women's prison and said too little had done since a groundbreaking report sparked by the deaths of six women at the jail between 2002 and 2003. He cited the example of one private prison near London which recorded more than seven cases of self-harm a day, and the case of one woman who had harmed herself 93 times in one month.

In a hard-hitting lecture to mark the fifth anniversary of the report by Baroness Corston into the state of women in prisons, he blamed the situation squarely on successive governments for failing to change a system "overwhelmingly geared to a male population". He said the decision-making hierarchy for a woman at Styal could be entirely male from wing officer to Prime Minister.

"Prisons, particularly as they are currently run, are simply the wrong place for so many of the distressed, damaged or disturbed women they hold," said Mr Hardwick. "I think the treatment and conditions in which a small minority of the most disturbed women are held is... simply unacceptable. I think, I hope, we will look back on how we treated these women in years to come, aghast and ashamed."

Although women make up only five percent of the 87,583 prison population in England and Wales, they account for nearly half of all self-harm incidents in prison. One former inmate who was jailed for six years after being caught bringing drugs into Britain told The Independent how, on her second night at Styal, a woman in a room opposite her own attempted to hang herself. The woman, who declined to be named, said that self-harming was rife while she was serving her sentence in the early 2000s. "I was on the upper landing, while others downstairs were doing cold turkey. They were banging on walls and the doors to get out to obtain drugs. They couldn't so they self-harmed," she said.

Baroness Corston, a Labour peer, called in 2007 for existing women's prisons to be replaced by smaller dedicated units around the country, which has not happened. She welcomed some changes – including the end of strip searching of women who had often been victims of sexual abuse – but said that women were still given longer sentences than men for the same crimes.

"The courts are still sending too many women to prison," she said. "The levels of self-harming are utterly horrifying. It's the one thing where these women feel they have some form of control. Everything else is beyond their control or impossible to deal with."

The problems at the Keller Unit, where ten of the most seriously damaged women were kept at Cheshire's Styal prison, were highlighted in a report by the prisons' inspectorate last month.

The former governor of Styal, Clive Chatterton, who retired last year, said that he had never come across such a "concentration of damaged, fragile and complex-needs individuals" during his 37-year career at mainly men's prisons.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson, said: "We are determined to tackle offending by women.

"Our aim is to tackle the underlying reasons for many women's offending, such as drug and alcohol addiction, as well as mental health issues and often long histories of abuse."