John Reid, the Home Secretary, faces a call today to shut down all women's prisons and cut the number of female prisoners from nearly 5,000 to just 100.
The provocative demand by penal reformers comes as figures show more women are locked up in England and Wales than in any European nation other than Ukraine and Spain.
A total of 4,494 adult women and 202 girls are behind bars in this country and the Home Office has been warned that the female prison population could pass 5,000 within two years.
The Howard League for Penal Reform will call for a radical new approach to the way women are treated by the criminal justice system today.
The league will say that female prisoners are suffering shocking levels of suicidal behaviour, sexual abuse, mental illness and drug addiction, and pressure on prison spaces means many have to be held far from families and friends. It suggests that custody should be reserved for a handful of violent, dangerous women - possibly as few as 100 - with offenders given community sentences instead.
All 15 women's prisons would close over the next five years under the plans, including Holloway in north London, one of the largest women's jails in Europe, and Styal in Cheshire, which has suffered a series of suicides.
The Howard League blames increases in the prison population on more women being jailed, many for relatively minor offences, and longer sentences being passed by courts. Twice as many women are being imprisoned for fraud and drugs offences as a decade ago and the average sentence for burglary has doubled.
Mr Reid has said he wants fewer women to be jailed, but the league argues that the Home Office has failed to match its good intentions with results.
In research published today, it warns: "The current political atmosphere may herald a return to a more crude form of getting tough on offenders. Our fear is that this climate is unlikely to produce the nuanced policy response necessary to adequately address the needs of women and girls in the penal system."
Frances Crook, its director, said: "There are few women who have committed violent offences and who are a continuing danger to the public.
"Women tend to be primary carers and the majority of them have young children. They also tend to commit different types of offences from men - they tend, for example, to steal children's clothes and food where men tend to steal electronic equipment."
Ms Crook said standards in women's prisons varied widely, but one she had visited recently was "run like a high-security jail, with heavy use of solitary confinement and high levels of distress among the women".
Prison service sources argued that a significant minority of women jailed had been convicted of violence or serious offences such as robbery and burglary.
A Home Office spokeswoman said: "We are aware that there are people in prison who ought not to be there, including 10,000 foreign nationals, those with mental health issues and vulnerable women.
"We have outlined our intention to remove these where appropriate, and to use tough community sentences to deal with less serious, non-violent offenders.
"However, the prison service is obliged to take those whom the courts remand or sentence to custody."
With the overall prison population approaching 80,000, the Home Office has been forced to convert two women's jails - Bullwood Hall in Essex and Brockhill in Worcestershire - into male prisons. Their inmates will have to be moved to other jails, which will be probably further from their homes, and suffer an interruption to their rehabilitation programmes.
Baroness Corston, a former Labour MP, is conducting a review for the Government on alternatives to jail for female offenders. She has said her eyes were opened to the problem during a visit to the women and baby unit at Holloway.
Lady Corston said: "You have only got to see babies in prison to be shocked."
Females in jail
* 4,494 women are in jail in England and Wales
* 62 per cent are aged between 18 and 30
* 202 girls under the age of 18 are in custody
* Three-quarters suffer mental health problems
* Two-thirds are drug and/or alcohol dependent
* Half have suffered domestic violence
* One-third have been sexually abused
* One in 10 have attempted suicide before being imprisoned
* 42 have killed themselves in the past four years
* 2,067 more women and girls are behind bars than in May 1997 when Labour won power
* 24 per cent are from ethnic minorities
* There are spaces for 79 babies in prisonsReuse content