Watchdog damns women's jail for suicides, drugs and reliance on solitary confinement

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Life at one of Britain's most notorious women's jails has become dominated by the use of the heroin substitute methadone, a scathing report by the prisons watchdog says today.

Life at one of Britain's most notorious women's jails has become dominated by the use of the heroin substitute methadone, a scathing report by the prisons watchdog says today.

Anne Owers says that earlier calls for urgent action to deal with drug abuse at Styal prison, which has seen a spate of suicides by addicts, were ignored before a scheme was set up in great haste within a few days. Demanding a shake-up of the regime and more funding, Ms Owers, the chief inspector of prisons, also said rules on placing women in solitary confinement were broken and a "high level of force" was used by staff.

Her comments - described by one penal reformer as the most savage prison report for 10 years - underline the crisis in women's jails as they struggle to cope with a soaring population and record suicide rates. Six women killed themselves at Styal, near Wilmslow in Cheshire, in 2002-3, all within their first month in custody. Five had a drug addiction.

Prison inspectors, alarmed in early 2002 to find that inmates appeared to be going "cold turkey" in their cells, called for a proper detoxification scheme. Ms Owers says that the funding to help women to come off hard drugs was not produced for at least another year, by which time six inmates had killed themselves. "Only after the sixth death was a methadone-prescribing scheme put in place to manage heroin withdrawal and that regime was set up in great haste, within a matter of days."

It was introduced at the prison's "relatively bleak and cramped" Waite wing, but had an impact on the entire 460-inmate jail. When Ms Owers' team visited Styal in January it found that methadone had been handed out to 447 women in the previous four months. "A combination of inadequate dispensing facilities and insufficient staff meant that the whole regime was focused around methadone dispensing," she said.

There was still no help for women who wanted to get off drugs when they arrived. "Women spent long periods of inactivity in their cells, many for over 19 hours a day. Residential staff were often dispirited and distant, feeling their role had been reduced to little more than medical orderlies."

Noting the "high level of force" at Styal, Ms Owers also condemned the frequency with which "special cells", without light, ventilation, furniture or sanitation, were used and the amount of time inmates spent in spaces designed for the most disruptive prisoners. "Women were held there for lengthy periods - an average of seven-and-a-half-hours - sometimes long after records showed they had calmed down ... Special cells should be a calming-down, not a long-term holding, facility." She added that the cells were also used against Prison Service guidelines, to hold women who had tried to harm themselves.

Ms Owers said there had been progress in work and education schemes, as well as the establishment of "supportive and open relationship" between staff and inmates.

But Mark Leech, editor of the Prisons Yearbook, said: "This is the single most critical report I have read on any prison in the last 10 years. Well-intentioned prison staff have become over-burdened by the number of heroin addicts. The prison's response has plummeted to one of survival, relying on methadone to get them through each day until one addicted prisoner is released and another comes through the gates ."

Juliet Lyon, the director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: "The fact that six women had to take their own lives before the Prison Service put in place basic procedures on drug detoxification ... is one of the most shocking examples of institutional failure in a public service. Styal is being used as a dumping ground for the mentally ill and drug addicts who have been failed by society."

Phil Wheatley, the director general of the Prison Service, said: "I acknowledge there are concerns about important aspects of the regime, and there is a need to improve basic systems and procedures. We have already made substantial progress towards strengthening and supporting detox provision, improving induction and first-night procedures, and developing our anti-bullying, suicide and self-harm policies."

One of the prisoners who committed suicide was Sarah Campbell, who took an overdose of prescription drugs at Styal within 24 hours of being sentenced to three years for manslaughter. She died three days before her 19th birthday in January last year. Her mother, Pauline Campbell, has since campaigned against conditions in women's jails and has been repeatedly arrested for staging protests outside prisons.

Mrs Campbell said: "I have read the report and I am completely shocked and appalled. It is very hard to read the details and know what my daughter went through in there. I hold the Prison Service responsible for Sarah's death."

Her daughter was held on remand at Styal for six months. She had beaten her heroin habit, but was suffering from depression, had been self-harming, and told her mother and prison officers that she felt suicidal.

The afternoon after she was sentenced she admitted taking an overdose of antidepressants. Mrs Campbell says there was a long delay before an ambulance was called. Her daughter died that evening.