WOMEN GIVEN life sentences spend on average two years longer in jail than male lifers despite evidence that they are less likely to re-offend, campaigners said yesterday.
A report published by the Howard League for Penal Reform states that in addition to longer sentences, women lifers have to cope with additional stress caused by fears about their fertility and guilt over their inability to care for children and relatives.
The report criticises the Prison Service for offering women inmates gender- stereotyped training in courses such as needlework and hairdressing. It also deplores the fact that many women prisoners rely on second-hand clothing and underwear.
Recent figures published by the Home Office showed the number of women jailed for life has risen by 85 per cent in a decade to 137 in 1997.
In common with many male lifers, women are serving well over the length of time set as their "tariff" by the Home Secretary, the report found. Figures for 1997 showed that women lifers served 16.7 years in custody on average before being released on licence, compared with an average tariff of 12 years. Men served an average of 14.3 years before release.
The report said the length of time served above their tariff was "particularly cruel" as women, many of whom are sentenced for "domestic" murders, had such a low reconviction rate. None of the 52 women lifers freed since 1981 has been reconvicted of a serious offence. In contrast, 5 per cent of male lifers freed between 1989 and 1993 have been reconvicted of a serious offence.
The report said there was little training on offer to women lifers to help them to cope with life outside prison.
Although inmates were allowed to wear their own clothes, many had so little money they had to rely on hand-outs from charity, even to the extent of wearing second hand underwear, which did little to boost their self-esteem.
The Prison Service said it was already considering the issue of prisoners serving longer than the period of their tariff after the problem was highlighted in a recent joint report by the prison and probation service inspectorates. However, issues such as length of tariff set and the imposition of mandatory sentences were a matter for the Home Office.
A spokesman said the Prison Service had recognised female inmates had different needs by establishing, more than a year ago, the Women's Policy Group to address their requirements across the service.
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