I left the room, and walked to the locked grille, trying to look less unsettled than I felt. Through the bars was a shiny, empty corridor. Behind me was the cacophony of noise that comes when 11 incarcerated women make the most of "free association".
"It's all right," said the woman. "Look, you can buzz them. They'll come and get you out."
Aliya was not so lucky. She sat on her bed by the window, under the posters of George Clooney and photographs of her 16-year-old son. "I lost my house in the second week on remand. In fact, I've lost everything. I didn't think I was going down, so I hadn't even taken anything round my mum's. Then the Social called me and told me someone had nicked my furniture."
It is a simple truth, oft repeated by authorities and prisoners alike, that women in prison have a lot more to lose than men. Since changes in housing benefit rules in 1995, most of them lose their homes, being unable to pay the rent. They lose their children: only 32 per cent are looked after by fathers or grandmothers. The vast majority of women are deserted by their partners ("usually to their best friend," one prisoner remarks wryly); and when they come out they have to contend with the "double stigma" of being a female offender.
Yet, in the past four years, there has been a 76 per cent increase in the number of women imprisoned. These are not always the violent women of popular myth (in fact, violent crimes by women dropped by 16 per cent in the same period). Asked by the Ramsbotham report what had led to their imprisonment, out of 24 possible categories nearly a third of inmates surveyed ticked "Alcohol/drugs", while 18 per cent named "Need for money, or debt". To hear their stories is to wonder how the monetary cost - and the social cost - of putting these women in jail balances any benefit.
Aliya's new home is the women's annexe at Winchester Prison. She shares it with 84 other women, many of whom have been there since it was opened in 1995 as part of the prison service's attempts to accommodate the increase. It is not bad, she says. The women have painted it pink, and the carefully tended prison garden and hanging washing detract from the looming men's prison next door. The signs requesting women "not to use the floor as an ashtray - it kills the cockroaches" are apparently a joke.
Winchester is, however, a far cry from some of the women's units identified in the Ramsbotham report, such as Low Newton, whose facilities "are not sufficient to meet the needs of unsentenced women prisoners"; or Risley, whose "ongoing problems ... lead us to recommend that there should be an alternative local prison". Winchester's "best practice" is far from the "serious inadequacies in the overall organisation and management of prisons for women in this country".
"It's like a week in a shopping centre, here. It's better than Holloway, anyway. That's a hell-hole. When I first went in I was in such a state they gave me valium, kept me valiumed up," says Aliya, adding: "It might have been a good thing." The Independent was told that there would be no press access to Holloway.
At Winchester, the inmates have an unusual degree of freedom. They are allowed access to each other's rooms even when their landing is locked, and most of them take education or gym classes on a daily basis. They write endless letters to cope with confinement. Some, such as Aliya, correspond daily with male prisoners, as "they understand how important letters are".
The staff, they say, "are all right. They come in every morning; bang on the windows to make sure we haven't loosened the panes. It's quite funny," says Aliya. Her roommate, Wendy, says that they are not allowed to put posters on the outside wall, since the film The Shawshank Redemption showed an inmate digging an escape hole behind his poster.
Like Aliya, Wendy, 39, is a first-time offender, serving four years related to drugs importing. According to the Ramsbotham report, 45 per cent of female prisoners have no previous convictions, and 70 per cent have not been in prison before.
"I was stupid, because I had a good job," says Wendy. "I just wanted to provide for my family. My mum had gone bankrupt, there were family problems, and I was providing here there and everywhere. `They' offered me more money than I could earn in a year
Ask any of the women what are the hardest things about prison, and they say the same: being separated from their families; their guilt at having left their children; and having disappointed their parents. Wendy has two girls, aged 24 and 11, and a six-year-old grandson. "My mum's taking care of them. That makes a lot of difference; my eldest girl could have gone the other way at one point. My partner? He isn't around any more." How long did he wait for her, I ask. "Oh, he stuck around about two months." She laughs bitterly. "Everyone here pretty well has the same story."
Wendy is knitting booties. A couple of pairs will pay for a packet of cigarettes. "I don't earn much - the top wage is around pounds 7.50 a week, and you pay pounds 3 for fags," she says. "It's difficult for our families to help us. The other week my mum came down with my daughter. By the time they'd got here and she'd left me pounds 10, it had cost her pounds 75."
But she is not complaining. In a previous prison she did not see her children at all. This is not uncommon. According to prison staff and campaigners, foster parents are often judgemental about the women's crimes, and won't bring children to visit.
"Even when the women ring up, the kids are always `just having their dinner', says Petronella Davis, who is welfare advice officer for the Creative and Support Trust (Cast), based in north London. "I've known couples where both parents are in prison; the man got to see his kids, but the foster mother thought that if the woman was in prison, she must be a very, very bad person."
Children, she says, take the separation hard. They wet the bed, have nightmares, play up at home and school. Aliya's son lives with his grandmother. "He doesn't show much emotion, because of his age. But he's not doing too well," Aliya says quietly. "Not really."
The worst time in the prison, say the staff, is 3.45pm on visiting day, shortly before children have to leave. "It is heartbreaking," says one. "But the women go back to their landing and take care of each other."
Winchester's unusually relaxed atmosphere is partly due, staff say, to the high proportion of drugs couriers in the prison ("I'd rather have them than someone in for GBH, ABH or arson," says one officer). But the governor, Richard Cavanagh, who has worked in the prison service for 26 years, says that most women's prisons have huge problems with bullying and self-harm. Bullying at Winchester is "not unknown", but is firmly dealt with. He ascribes the low level of self-harm to the women's freedom to move around and keep occupied, and to the officers' willingness to talk.
"These women do lose everything," he says. "The majority of prisoners who harm themselves have done it out of sheer frustration, because no one will listen. Once they feel safe, and heard, you can work with them."
Wendy and Aliya look after each other. Both are now counting the days until their release dates. But their problems are unlikely to end there. When the Ramsbotham report asked women prisoners what would help them not to reoffend, the top three answers were: a home; a job; support. According to welfare workers, however, these are precisely the things that may elude them when they finish their sentence.
Petronella Davis says that many women's first day out of prison is spent at a homeless persons' unit, to get them and their children some form of temporary accommodation. Getting a job can be even more problematic. The women know this, and say that just as they feel more shame than men, they are judged more harshly.
Groups such as Women In Prison say this is partly due to the demonisation of women criminals, and the media "myth" of the increasingly violent woman. These views, they say, are translated into the practice of the courts.
"I think we have to get these figures into proportion. There's been all this stuff about Tank Girl, girl gangs, books with titles like Deadlier Than The Male," says Women in Prison's director, Chris Tchaikovsky. "Yet there are currently 2,500 men serving time for murder, and 99 women. You have a 27 times greater chance of being murdered by a man." Last month the National Association of Probation Officers concluded that there "did appear to be evidence that a harsher sentencing climate had evolved" for women.
It is not just the women themselves who bear the cost. To the taxpayer's burden of keeping a woman in prison must often be added the cost of placing her children in care, the cost of rehousing them when they leave, the cost of keeping a family on benefits when the woman finds it difficult to get a job. And that is before you consider the cost to society of fractured families and damaged children.
Meanwhile, Winchester's female prison population has increased by 25 per cent in two years. At present, its recidivism rate, like its social problems, is unusually low, but David Cavanagh says the prison's careful balancing act will not be maintained if he is forced to accommodate any more women.
As the grille closes on Wendy and Aliya's landing, I ask him whether he is concerned about the huge rise in the number of women prisoners. Mindful of his position, I say that he can speak off the record, but he declines. "I think the prison service is wise to separate itself from sentencing policy," he says carefully.
OK, I say; bearing in mind the women you see, do you think that a similar decrease in the women's prison population would create a significant risk to the public?
"I think courts would need to revisit reasons why they send people to prison," he says, smiling.
And I am let out - through the metal grilles, and into the bright sunshine.Reuse content