Too many women are being sent to jail, leading to record levels of suicide, the minister in charge of Britain's prisons has admitted.
The Government is drawing up alternatives to jail: tagging female drug offenders, sending more women to bail hostels and extending the use of part-time custody.
"I want to see fewer women in there, serving shorter sentences," Paul Goggins, the Prisons minister, said yesterday. He said: "I want to see more women on community sentences where appropriate."
Mr Goggins, in an exclusive interview with The Independent on Sunday, also admitted the number of female offenders killing themselves was "appallingly high".
Mr Goggins said the prison system was biased towards the needs of men, that women with mental health problems should not be in prison and that short jail terms often had a negative impact on offenders.
Mr Goggins' comments follow the publication yesterday of a damning report into the women's prison at Styal in Cheshire where six inmates killed themselves in 2002 and 2003, all within their first month of custody.
The inspection report revealed that drug-addicted women were locked in their cells for 19 hours a day and that self-harming inmates were handcuffed and placed in punishment rooms.
Prison reform groups have called for an urgent review of the jailing of women, the majority of whom have not committed violent offences.
Women In Prison, which campaigns to improve the rights of female prisoners, said that prison was unsuitable for the majority of women.