At bursting point

The tide of Jamaican women entering Britain with their stomachs full of cocaine is pushing the country’s already overcrowded female prison system to breaking point.

An investigation has established that the long sentences being served by the 450 Jamaican couriers — who constitute more than 10% of the women currently in jail — are stretching British resources to the limit, while failing to act as a deterrent to the desperate women prepared to smuggle drugs.

The crisis has deepened since July, when a glut of women prisoners were sentenced before the British courts went into mid-year recess. Women are regularly being bused around as prisons try to find them cells and overcrowding is blamed for the unprecedented number of suicides within female jails: 17 women have taken their own lives since August last year.

At a time when cells are in short supply, the British prison service has been forced to dedicate four of the 17 women’s jails to housing foreign women.

One, Morton Hall prison in Lincolnshire, is the first jail in the country to have more Jamaicans than any other nationals behind bars — a total of 155, compared with 115 women of all other nationalities.

The pressure is now so great that British private companies have been invited to tender to build a jail in Jamaica so that the mules currently imprisoned in the United Kingdom could be transferred back to the Caribbean.

Senior officials say the project is being pursued by the Jamaican authorities, but there is speculation that the British government would consider underwriting it.

Another option ministers are being urged to contemplate is to stop prosecuting the mules and to simply confiscate their drugs and deport them, or to develop community sentences in Jamaica. Others, including the director of public prosecutions, believe their sentences should be shorter.

The official prison service line is that its duty is to accommodate whoever the courts decide to jail, regardless of population pressures. But Lynn Saunders, Morton Hall’s governor, said the principal cause of the problem was the length of sentences being handed down to couriers who, customs officials admit, play a minuscule role in drug trafficking into the country.

She said: “There are issues about the sentencing these women get. They are very long and disproportionate to sentences for violence against the person. We have got people doing 10 years here.”

Barbara Thompson* (39), a mother of six, is typical of the mules doing time in Morton Hall. She is serving three years and nine months for carrying 341g of cocaine in her stomach.

A street seller in the Jamaican capital Kingston, she was approached by a young woman who told her she could make “much more money another way”.

Thompson was given an address where she was shown piles of little parcels containing 100% pure cocaine. Made from the fingers of latex gloves and secured with tape, each was the size of the top of her thumb. She was supposed to swallow 100 and was given six bottles of juice to wash them down. She managed to swallow 52.

Thompson was paid £400 in Jamaican dollars in advance and told that she would get another £1 600 when she got to England.

Although she had been warned not to have any food or drink, she started eating as soon as she got on the plane in the hope that she would pass the drugs in the toilet and leave them there.

She did not, and when stopped by customs officers at Heathrow, she told them immediately what she had done.

Thompson did not realise the high price she and her family would have to pay for her getting caught. Since she failed to meet the person she was supposed to deliver the drugs to, the gang who supplied them in Kingston assumed that she had stolen them. As punishment, they kidnapped her brother, stabbed him and then burnt him alive.

Since 1997 the number of foreign women in British prisons has increased by 140%, to an average of 4 500, compared with 1 577 10 years ago.

Olga Heaven of Hibiscus, the British organisation that helps foreign women in prison locally and attempts to ease their resettlement when they are released and deported home, believes that the women are often used as decoys to allow more serious couriers to make it through.

“I can’t see what sense it makes to hold a woman in her mid- to late-30s to a long prison sentence when she’s just a courier who has never done anything like this in her life before.”

The majority of the Jamaican women in prison in the UK are over 30 and many are single mothers.

Catherine Phillips* (49) is a grandmother who swallowed 601g of cocaine, with an estimated street value of £57 000. She is now serving a six-year sentence. “I was supposed to be here for nine days, I have been here now for three years,” she said.

Like Thompson, Phillips washed the drugs down with juice, becoming what customs officers term a “stuffer and swallower”. But Phillips came close to dying because the drug wraps would not leave her system. Three days after being caught she was taken to hospital, where an X-ray showed that the wrapping of the packages had melded together.

Phillips believes that long sentences are not a deterrent because the women who become mules do not know about them until they are caught.

“It’s not in any conversation that prison is a possibility. It’s just going to England and getting this package delivered. Those drug dealers won’t go to jail and they don’t know anything about prison life or what’s going on. They would just leave you to die. They will find somebody else to fill your space.

“I can’t tell people ‘don’t do it’ when they are starving. But they should know it’s six, seven, eight, nine, 10 years ... you ain’t coming back and you can’t bargain with the judge.” — Â

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