Eric Allison and Tania Branigan - Monday August 9, 2004 - The Guardian
Officers at Holloway prison are cutting down five women a day from nooses, the Guardian has learned, and recently saved one inmate six times in a single night.
But those women are the lucky ones. Already this year 11 female prisoners in English and Welsh prisons have apparently taken their own lives and campaigners fear that this year will see the greatest number of female jail deaths since records began.
It is likely to surpass even last year's record of 14 apparent suicides. The death rate has soared over the past 10 years: in 1994, only one prisoner died at her own hands. "The future is looking extremely bleak," said Deborah Coles of Inquest, which works with families of those who have died in custody.
"The current situation is dismal and the end of the year is a particularly vulnerable time for women. We know that prisons cannot keep women safe: it is not just those who are dying, but the high numbers self-harming and attempting suicide every day."
The alarming acceleration was underlined last month when two female prisoners were found dead within the space of 36 hours.
The day after Rebecca Turner, 22, was found dead at HMP Low Newton near Durham, Marie Walsh, 29, became the fifth woman in under 18 months to die at HMP New Hall, West Yorkshire.
"The relentless death toll is leaving families torn apart by grief and children motherless," said Pauline Campbell, who protests outside every jail where a woman has died following her 18-year- old daughter Sarah's death in Styal prison last year.
In society generally, men are between two and three times as likely as women to commit suicide. Yet in prisons, it is women who are more likely to kill themselves. They make up just 6% of the prison population, yet accounted for almost 20% of all suicides last year.
As the evidence from Holloway shows, for every death there are hundreds of incidents which would prove fatal without swift intervention by officers.
Earlier this year, the then governor Ed Willetts stated that staff were cutting down at least three women a day from makeshift nooses. "It's five now," said a member of the healthcare staff, who asked to remain anonymous.
Another member of staff told the Guardian that one woman had tried to hang herself six times in a single night.
Suicide attempts are only the most extreme manifestation of distress: in 2003, 30% of all women prisoners had harmed themselves, compared with 6% of men.
"There is worrying complacency on the part of the government," said Ms Coles, citing its refusal to hold a wide-ranging inquiry into the record number of female prison deaths last year as Inquest requested.
At the heart of the problem is overcrowding. The female prison population, like that of men, has soared in the last 10 years, from 1,811 in 1994 to 4,475 at the start of last month.
The Prison Service's own research last year showed a direct link between overcrowding and suicides; 10 of the 20 jails with the highest suicide rate were also in the top 20 jails with the highest turnover of population.
"It is too superficial simply to blame prisons," said Frances Crook, director of the Howard League for Penal Reform. "The chain of responsibility starts with the home secretary, who has failed to make any comment about the rising death toll of people in his care."
The majority of sentenced female prisoners are held for non- violent offences. Include those who are on remand and the situation is even clearer: in 2002, more women were sent to prison for shoplifting than for any other crime.
Rebecca Turner had been convicted of supplying drugs; Marie Wilson was awaiting sentencing for theft.
The government recognises that tougher sentencing may be contributing to the growing number of suicides.
"Recent increases [in self-inflicted deaths] may be affected by greater throughput and an increasing number of vulnerable people entering custody," a Home Office spokeswoman said.
Two-thirds of female prisoners are mothers, yet the small number of women's jails means they are even more likely than men to be placed hundreds of miles from their families. Overcrowding increases the likelihood that they will be jailed far from home. The Home Office says that tackling prisoner suicides and self-harm is a priority for ministers and the Prison Service.
A spokeswoman cited recent moves intended to tackle the problem. These range from changing cell design - making it harder for inmates to find points from which to hang themselves - to appointing suicide prevention coordinators.
But campaigners say the rocketing suicide rate is evidence that a drastic rethink on sentencing is needed, not simply improvements within prisons.