The community got nothing out of me going to prison – in fact, they had to pay for it’

Last week saw a national debate on over-crowded prisons and tagging. The question is: Who are we sending to prison and should they be there? ANGELA SINGER spoke to a Huntingdonshire woman who left prison seven weeks ago after being jailed for fraud. RITA

Last week saw a national debate on over-crowded prisons and tagging. The question is: Who are we sending to prison and should they be there? ANGELA SINGER spoke to a Huntingdonshire woman who left prison seven weeks ago after being jailed for fraud.

RITA (not her real name) now wears a tag on her leg.

She is out on licence after serving a quarter of her prison sentence and is under a curfew.

She is not allowed out of her house between 7pm and 7am - even into the garden.

A box in the house (like the box used for wireless connections for computers) will send a signal to a control room if she leaves the house during curfew.

However, the crime she committed had no link to the time of day. Rita, 44, and a mother of three, stole £44,000 from her employers to try to pay off her credit cards.

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She owed £28,000 on six cards. She had held credit cards but told absolutely no one about the debt, not even her husband of 22 years.

Eventually, she cracked under the secret.

So, detaining her after dark has no practical relevance. But when you have 80,000 prisoners in the prison system, there is bound to be an element of one-size-fits-all.

The curfew expires on December 18 and she jokes about wanting to stay out all night simply because she can.

She will still be on licence until her sentence expires next August.

Rita was sentenced to 16 months. She served 17 weeks, six in Peterborough Prison and 11 weeks at a semi-open prison, Morton Hall, in Lincoln.

"The community got nothing out of me going to prison. In fact, they had to pay for it," she says. "Surely, it would be more useful for people like me to do community service.

"One thing I learned was that there is no consistency in sentencing.

"I met girls who had done the same crime as me, only the sums they stole were a lot larger and they got longer sentences - but not much longer.

"You very quickly learn not to ask people what they are in prison for. If they want to tell you, that's fine, but otherwise you are all in the same boat."

She says she was surprised at how inappropriate the sentencing system appeared to be.

"There was one lady of 60. She was only in prison for eight weeks but she was sentenced to six months for defrauding the NHS of £295 when she was off sick.

"She was a home-carer and while she was off sick she did some private work, shopping and cleaning for two old ladies, and someone tipped off her bosses.

"A lot of them were in for drugs - about 80 per cent. If you took away the drug problem, you would empty the prisons.

"There was a young woman of 22 who had her third baby while she was in prison. She gave birth in hospital and she was back in her cell the next day.

"She said she didn't want to go into the mother and baby unit, her father would look after the baby. She was in prison for drugs and her boyfriend was in prison for drugs. The baby will be a year old before she can look after him."

The point Rita makes is that it is not what happens in prison that turns people into recidivists, it is what happens to people before they go in and after they come out. Prison can't control the world outside the walls.

"Some people make progress inside, but when they leave they are going back to the same situation they left, the same friends, the same drug dealers.

"A lot of the younger girls were almost better off in prison. They have a structure to their day. They have three meals a day and a bed for a night.

"They had lived on the streets or were involved in prostitution. One girl was crying when she left because she had nothing on the outside."

Rita found the prison regime and the physical conditions in Peterborough and Morton Hall a lot less harsh than she had imagined.

"The prison officers said: 'We are not here to punish you. Your punishment is to be here. We are here to help your rehabilitation.'

"I was so relieved that you could phone home every day and that I would get a cell on my own. That was really good. I met girls from Holloway who had to share four to a cell."

Women prisoners at Peterborough are allowed television in their cells, they can smoke and can switch off their TV sets and lights when they decide.

They can use the gym and the library and take education classes. They can wear their own clothes, their laundry is done for them and they get a menu once a week and choose their food.

However, lock-up is from 8pm until just before 7am. They are strip-searched, their cells are searched and they are counted four times a day - and, of course, constantly watched.

At Morton Hall, which is run by the Home Office, women are not locked in their cells, they are in a wing which is locked and they can go into each other's rooms until 11pm.

I asked Rita what time she was woken up and the reply was that you did not, in fact, sleep.

"It was too noisy to sleep because of the shouting. There was a girl who should have been in a psychiatric hospital. She was seriously disturbed. She was a self-harmer and would shout all night most nights."

Despite everything, Rita says there were some positive things about going to prison.

"I took an NVQ in health and fitness and I used the gym and I lost two stone."

She added: "I also learned not to judge people by appearances. Some of the people I would have crossed the road to avoid before I found were some of the nicest people I had ever met."

These days, prisoners who behave well can serve only a quarter of their sentences in prison. They spend another quarter tagged and the rest on licence.

However, early release depends on behaviour and overworked probation officers getting the paperwork done on time.

Suddenly, people who have broken the rules are desperately anxious that others stick to them.

The result is that women, towards the end of the sentences lobby prison staff for early release.

"The deputy governor, poor bloke, would be trying to go home for the night and he would be crossing the car park and people would stop him to ask about their papers."

Does Rita regret her crime? "Yes, incredibly. It's hurt so many people. Not only my former employers but my friends and family."

Did prison work? "No, not for me. Before I went in, I already regretted what I had done.

"I knew I had done wrong. I vowed that I would never do it again. But society says that if you have done wrong, you must be punished.

"I have not stopped punishing myself, beating myself up and I am still suffering from depression."

A day in the life of a woman in Peterborough Prison

7.30am: Cells unlocked - and a chance for a shower.

8.15-11.30am: Work or education.

11.30am: Locked in the cell.

12.15: Unlocked for lunch. Association until 1pm. Another chance for a shower. Exercise in the yard for 20 minutes if the weather is fine and enough staff are available.

1.15: Back to work or education.

4pm: Back to the cells.

4.45-5pm: Unlocked for the evening meal.

5pm: Locked in the cell.

6-8pm: Unlocked. Allowed use of the gym, library, or the sports hall for aerobics. Chance to play pool or sit and the read the newspapers which will have been censored to remove the crimes of possible inmates.

8pm: Locked up for the night.