Earlier this month, an inquest heard how Beverley Fowler took her own life in Durham Prison after she was used to smuggle drugs into Britain.

Emily Flanagan looks at the tragic chain which has led dozens of women from the Caribbean to the North-East.

BEVERLEY Fowler's life in Kingston, Jamaica, was finally looking rosy. After an impoverished up-bringing and then being abandoned by the fathers of her two children, the 32-year-old had found happiness with the father of her third child. But then her new man borrowed money from gangsters to pay for a motorbike, and Beverley's happy interlude was over.

Within a few weeks, her boyfriend had been shot dead by the gang. Beverley was raped by three of them, kidnapped and sent on her way to England with a bag full of drugs. She was stopped as she tried to enter the country and the drugs were found. She was convicted of trying to smuggle Class A drugs into the UK.

The journey from contented mother-of-three to drugs mule ended in October last year when she was found hanging in her cell at Durham Prison with less than a week to go before she was due to be released, to be immediately followed by deportation to Jamaica. An inquest into her death heard that she had been looking forward to seeing her three children, particularly as they had no one to look after them since the death of Beverley's mother a few months earlier. But she had also been apprehensive about returning home to face the gang who had forced her to work for them.

Far from being a one-off case, the theme of Yardie gang threats and crushing poverty can be found again and again in the cells of Durham Prison. It is one of the few top security women's prisons in the country and has housed notorious prisoners from Myra Hindley to Rosemary West.

Today, out of the 100 or so women locked up in Durham, about 15 are Jamaican women jailed for smuggling drugs.

Many prisoners' welfare organisations, such as Women in Prison, Hibiscus and Inquest, protest that it is entirely unacceptable that women who find themselves forced into smuggling drugs are then placed in prisons with dangerous criminals.

Gilly Mundy, a senior case worker with Inquest, which supports families whose relatives have died in custody, said the sheer number of foreign nationals held in high security jails for drug smuggling was adding to the problem of prison overcrowding.

"In Durham Prison we have vulnerable women who are double victims: victims of the drug trafficking trade and also victims of an overcrowded prison system, where they're with high security prisoners. A lot have been in similar situations to Beverley - they have been abused, raped, coerced into the trade, in Beverley's case to pay off a debt," he says.

At the inquest into Beverley's death, several other inmates at Durham Prison said they thought she had expected to be found when she created a ligature to hang herself. After hearing this evidence, an open verdict was returned. Beverley was the fourth death at Durham jail's women's section between August 2002 and May this year.

Mr Mundy says this coincides with a 150 per cent increase in the female population at Durham Prison - a trend reflected across the country in women's prisons. But overcrowded prisons are just part of the problem.

Billie Ibidun, director of the charity Women in Prison, says: "Foreign nationals are actually beginning to clog up the prisons because they are given such long sentences and that situation is only going to get worse. "There's a real crisis in women's prisons. The prison population has gone through the roof and the suicide rate is already equal to what it was last year. We're absolutely in crisis."

She thinks the women being caught are just at the end of the chain: women cornered into smuggling through poverty or fear, by organised drugs gangs.

"If we're talking about a drugs mule, I don't understand the logic of locking them in high security prisons," says Mrs Ibidun. "They don't have a history of violence, they don't mastermind the operations and it's often a first time offence. The response we have to these women really lacks compassion and understanding. They're the easiest ones to catch, so we're targeting our resources in the wrong place.

'And we should also research the coercion into the crime. Sometimes they're told the whole family will be killed if they don't co-operate or if they give information."

She said drugs mules are often completely unaware of the consequences if they get caught. "We're talking about women who have a suffered a degree of poverty we can't even imagine. They're offered £500 to £1,000, which could help transform their lives and the lives of their children, and they're told if they get caught it's not a big deal. They don't understand they can get put in prison for ten to 15 years."

Hibiscus, a charity working with foreign nationals in Britain's prisons, followed Beverley's inquest particularly closely. It is pushing for a number of changes in the way foreign drugs smugglers are treated. In particular, they want to see shorter sentences.

One of the charity's project workers, Sylvia Gerrish, says: "We want some kind of resettlement programme or some kind of probation order they can serve in their own country.

"For years we've been saying women should not be in high security jails if they're coming up to the end of their sentence. A British woman would not be held in a high security jail a few weeks before being released.

"Normally if you have been in prison for eight years, you might spend the first five in high security and the final three preparing to come out by going to lower security jails, having more home visits and acclimatising yourself. If you've been inside for eight years just simple things like meeting and greeting people on the street and paying for things seem strange."

Earlier this year, the UK's deputy High Commissioner in Jamaica ignited a political row when he claimed that as many as one in ten passengers flying from Jamaica into the UK was smuggling drugs.

Although the Prison Service would not confirm how many Jamaican women are in prison for drugs smuggling, it said a number of factors determine where they are held.

A spokesman says: "With any prisoner, a judgement is made on whether or not they're likely to escape, for example, and that will have a bearing on which type of prison they are sent to."

Nevertheless, there are hopes among prisoner welfare groups that Beverley's death will draw attention to this silent community of women, who exist unknown and far from home behind the walls of the country's jails. Inquest's Gilly Mundy adds: "Beverley was a victim of both the drug traffickers and the prison system."