First prison built for women boasts trees, TVs and baby unit

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The Independent Online

The new inmates at HMP Bronzefield, Britain's first purpose-built prison for women, could be forgiven for doing a double-take when they arrive.

The new inmates at HMP Bronzefield, Britain's first purpose-built prison for women, could be forgiven for doing a double-take when they arrive.

Gone are the oppressive buildings and drab recreation yards, the dark corners and the gloomy passageways. In their place are natural light, brightly painted walls and even indoor trees in the jail's main communal area.

The Prison Service, struggling in the face of an escalating female prison population and record suicide numbers, has turned to the private sector for help. The company UKDS will be paid at least £200m by the Home Office to operate the new jail in Ashford, west London, for the next 25 years. Never before has a prison been built in this country specifically with female inmates in mind. The result is a jail that makes a dramatic break with the past, both in design and regime.

Janine McDowell, the prison director, conceded that architecture alone could not tackle the problems of self-harm and suicide bedevilling the women's estate. But she added: "We have a new, nice, attractive facility. We hope its attractiveness and the quality of the accommodation will help with people's state of mind."

The 450-bed jail, which begins receiving its first inmates next week, is divided into three house blocks, and has a mother and baby unit for 12 women who will be able keep their children with them until the youngsters are 18 months.

Its facilities are arranged around a central "mall" area that will be decorated with trees and foliage. "Sails", rather than the traditional netting, will be attached to the walls to break the fall of women who jump off the first-floor landing.

The gym boasts an array of exercise bikes, treadmills, rowing machines and weights that would put many fitness centres on the outside to shame. Zara, a fitness instructor, said: "It will increase the self- esteem and morale of the women and cut out aggression. If they feel good about themselves, they are more likely to be happy."

The kitchen, which will use 110,000 pints of milk and 21,000 tomatoes in a year, offers a menu which includes Caribbean chicken, beef lasagne, braised steak and onions, and lamb curry, as well as vegetarian and "healthy" options.

The children's play area is full of toys, games and books, while the education centre will offer literacy and numeracy courses, arts and crafts, hairdressing, and lessons in IT and English as a second language.

The prison is equipped with an 18-bed healthcare unit and a multi-faith area, including a dedicated Muslim room with feet-washing facilities. Nearly all cells have just one bed and are routinely fitted with televisions. Crucially, the women will be able to spend some 12 hours a day out of them, rather than allowing grievances to fester and depression to deepen during long hours of "lock-up".

But some staff - many of whom have had to undergo intensive training before they start their first job in a prison - privately confess to being daunted by the challenge. One said: "It is a bit of a leap in the dark - we still worry how it will all come together."

And in a demonstration of the pressure in the jail system, UKDS has contingency plans to increase the number of inmates by 10 per cent to 495.

With the Treasury continuing to keep a tight grip on its budget, the Home Office is being forced to use the private sector to keep pace with the increase in the prison population.

UKDS operates Forest Bank Prison in Salford, Greater Manchester, and is working on a mixed jail at Peterborough due to open next year.