Why are we asking this question now?
A radical report, commissioned by the Home Office, has called for all women's prisons to be shut down over the next 10 years and replaced by a network of small, secure units nearer to women's families.
Charles Clarke, the former home secretary, asked a Labour peer, Baroness Corston, to assess the pressures faced by female offenders after the suicide of six inmates at Styal jail, Cheshire, in just 13 months. Clearly shocked by the suffering and inefficiency she discovered during her nine-month inquiry, she painted a picture of life in women's prisons far removed from the cheerful camaraderie of Australian soap opera Prisoner Cell Block H.
She said: "I was dismayed to see so many women frequently sentenced for short periods of time for very minor offences, causing chaos and disruption to their lives and families, without any realistic chance of addressing the causes of their criminality." And she reached the conclusion that wide-ranging reform was essential to help break a grim cycle of abuse, addiction, family breakdown and offending affecting vulnerable women.
How many women are locked up?
Last weekend, 4,329 women were behind bars in 16 prisons in England and Wales. Although the total stabilised over the last year, suggesting magistrates are now heeding pleas to opt for community sentences for petty offenders, the trend has been upwards since the 1990s, with the female prison population virtually doubling in the past decade.
The largest and most well-known women's prison is Holloway, in north London, which holds almost 500 prisoners. A damning inspection report two years ago said it was infested with mice, pigeons and insects, although the prison service insists conditions have improved since then. The other 15 are spread between Kent and Durham, but wide areas of the country have no women's prison.
There has been none in the West Midlands since Brockhill prison in Redditch, Worcesters hire, was converted into a male jail. Strangely, the nearest prison for a Cornish woman is nearly 200 miles away in Gloucestershire.
Are female offenders treated like men?
Women, representing only 5.4 per cent of the prison population, break the law much less often than men. Those who do are more likely to be guilty of theft and fraud and less likely to be involved in violence, criminal damage and organised crime.
The evidence suggests that when women fall foul of the criminal justice system they will be harshly treated by a system designed for men. More than one-third of those behind bars have no previous convictions, double the proportion of men.
More women than men kill themselves in prison - the reverse of the situation in the outside world - and five times more harm themselves. Women are more likely to be looking after children, and 18,000 youngsters suffer the often "catastrophic" loss of a jailed mother each year, Lady Corston warns. But because of the small number of women's prisons, they are often locked up far from their families.
What particular problems do women prisoners suffer?
The female prison population represents a grim snapshot of almost every social form of deprivation and disadvantage. More than half say they have suffered domestic violence, one in three has experienced sexual abuse, 80 per cent have no school qualifications and 40 per cent have spent time in local authority care. Three- quarters display symptoms of severe neurotic disorders, such as depression or extreme anxiety.
Three-quarters have to undergo detoxification programmes upon arriving in jail - sometimes for a cocktail of as many as nine drugs - with high levels of abuse of crack cocaine, heroin, cannabis and ben-ziodiazepines. …