System that offers life of isolation: Heather Mills reports on a special hospital inmate who suffered abuse and harassment

'JANE' has spent most of the past 20 years in Ashworth, Broadmoor, and Rampton secure special hospitals - locked away with some of the country's most seriously disturbed killers like Ian Brady and Peter Sutcliffe.

Her crimes were all trivial, shoplifting, possessing cannabis and causing a minor fire at her home, but freedom has so far proved elusive. Only now as a resident in a regional secure unit, is the prospect of release a possibility. After so many years in institutions, Jane says it is also a daunting one. Aged 43, she feels she has been caught in a system which sent her spiralling downwards - one which she admits she abused, but one in which she was also abused.

She recently wrote, in Nursing Times, her own graphic account of being stripped and thrown into an isolation unit at Ashworth, where she was held for 14 days without exercise or natural daylight. 'I felt completely alone. After a while I felt a need to urinate, so I got up from the mattress and tried to find the paper pot. It was so dark I could not find it anywhere and I had to urinate on the floor.

'After what seemed like an eternity, the door opened and the light was switched on. Because the light was so intense after being kept in the darkness I could not see who the nurses were, but I heard one of them say, 'Which is the dirtiest part of the room?' The other responded, 'Over there'. I could see she was pointing to where I had urinated on the floor. She put a sandwich in the puddle, turned the lights off and locked the door.' Speaking yesterday from the Carswell clinic, in Bridgend, South Wales, where she is in the rehabilitation unit preparing for release, Jane said: 'I can't begin to tell you how many hours I spent locked away in seclusion. Each time they locked me away I just felt more bitterness and resentment.'

Her accounts of harassment, demeaning and inhumane treatment are echoed in studies of special hospitals and prisons which are being used in a report today to highlight human rights abuses. It says the criminal justice system discriminates against women. A disproportionate number are held in the special hospitals because there is a tendency to interpret women's behaviour differently to men's.

One of the biggest reviews of services for mentally disordered offenders, the Reed report, concluded: 'Research tends to support the claim that women are more likely to be perceived 'mad' rather than 'bad'.'

Jane, who prefers not to use her real name, says there are many women like her trapped in the system who have suffered similar experiences but who feel too intimidated to speak up. She is left with no doubt that if, when she was sentenced in 1973 for shoplifting and possession of pounds 5 worth of cannabis, she had been kept out of the prison and special hospital system, she would certainly not be there today.

'Now I am being treated as a human being, but I still find it difficult to trust people. I used to think I was just plain bad. And they locked up and punished bad people. Only now that I am away from the special hospitals am I beginning to see I have capabilities,' she said.