Jailing of women attacked as suicides increase

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The Independent Online

A woman aged 29 has been found hanged in her prison cell two weeks after being put on remand for theft, the 11th female jail suicide this year in England and Wales, compared with 14 for all of 2003.

A woman aged 29 has been found hanged in her prison cell two weeks after being put on remand for theft, the 11th female jail suicide this year in England and Wales, compared with 14 for all of 2003.

Marie Walsh was sent to New Hall prison, near Wakefield, West Yorkshire, by magistrates in Derby. A Prison Service spokesman said: "Every death in custody is a tragedy. We offer our sincere condolences to the family and friends of Ms Walsh." The police and coroner have been informed, he said, and the prisons ombudsman, Stephen Shaw, will investigate.

In total, 55 inmates have been found dead in prisons so far this year, compared with 57 at this point last year. Campaigners say an epidemic of suicide is afflicting female prisoners. Four young women killed themselves in one week in June.

Suicides by women prisoners have risen 200 per cent over five years. In 1990, there was one female suicide in English and Welsh jails. The rise in suicides is linked to severe overcrowding, which, critics say, is caused by increasingly over-zealous sentencing.

The female prison population is at an all-time high, with 4,671 women inside compared with 1,811 a decade ago. More women are being jailed, most of them for petty crimes, and the overcrowded, understaffed jail system cannot cope with the drug,alcohol, mental and physical problems many have.

Deborah Coles, of the campaign group Inquest, said: "The situation is unprecedented in terms of the number of women killing themselves in prison. It is a national scandal and it is getting worse, yet nothing is being done about it."

Most women are in for shoplifting. In 2002, nearly 3,000 were jailed for it. The male prison population rose 6 per cent between 2001 and 2002, but there was a 15 per cent increase in women prisoners.

Sandra Gidley, the Liberal Democrat spokeswoman on women's issues, said: "Most judges are men and have little idea how vulnerable and damaged many of these women are, as well as the fact they may have children they should look after."

There is little evidence that jailing women works; six out of 10 of them are reconvicted within two years of being freed. Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: "Is it lack of alternatives or lack of humanity which drives courts to imprison women, mostly women who have not committed serious or violent offences?"

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