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The number of women injuring themselves in prison has almost doubled in five years, according to an article in The Independent today. More than half of all self-harming incidents in prisons involve women, despite women making up just five percent of the prison population in England and Wales:

Officials recorded 12,560 cases of women prisoners injuring themselves – mainly by cutting and burning – last year, equivalent to almost three incidents per inmate. In 2003, 6,437 instances of self-harm were recorded in English prisons, about 1.5 per inmate.

Paul Holmes, the Liberal Democrat Justice spokesman, said:

It is nothing short of a disgrace how women are treated in our overcrowded penal system. It shows how desperate the situation is that the number of incidents has doubled.

The issue of women in prison has been ignored for far too long. There are record numbers behind bars but no evidence of a corresponding rise in women committing more serious crime.

The Government must realise prison is not the right place for female offenders who pose no threat to the public.

While 4,291 women are currently serving custodial sentences – slightly less than last year – it is still almost double the number held a decade ago. According to the article:

Research suggests that more women are sent to prison for shoplifting than any other crime. Forty per cent of sentenced women serve just three months or less. More than half of women in prison report they have suffered violence at home, and one in three has suffered sexual abuse. Two-thirds have a neurotic disorder, such as depression, anxiety and phobias.

Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said:

Women injure themselves repeatedly in prison because they are mostly in a terrible state: poor, scared and ill, hurting from painful separation from their children, and detoxing from drugs and drink.

Why do we lock up our most damaged and vulnerable women in bleak under-staffed institutions which, despite best efforts, are almost bound to make them worse?

Despite government promises to invest money in community programmes to aid rehabilitation, and to to look at tough alternatives to jail for women with small children, the prison system is still failing female prisoners.