PRISON should be a last resort for female convicts in Swindon and the rest of the country, former jailbird and economist Vicky Pryce has told a women’s charity in the town.

Although she admitted some people deserve to be behind bars, the ex-wife of former cabinet minister Chris Huhne, who served a sentence for perverting the course of justice, believes education and employment is the best way to stop people breaking the law, rather than incarceration.

“Until I went to prison myself, I had absolutely no idea what was going on,” said Ms Pryce on Friday at the Nelson Trust in Old Town.

“I probably had a conservative view that perhaps people deserved what they got.

“Everybody on the outside said it was going to be terrible because they would all hate my background and, indeed, I am luckier than most of the people there; I had a job to go back to of sorts, a house and children who were waiting for me.”

The turning point for the mother-of-five, who served time for accepting speeding points a decade earlier on behalf of her then husband, was during her short stint at Holloway Prison and East Sutton Park Open Prison.

She grew to know the fellow inmates, who divulged in their backgrounds and explained the plights effecting them, such as drug addiction or abuse, which were the root cause of what drove them to crime.

“I would be queuing in line with them to get my aspirins while they went to go and get their pills and methadone, so by the time I got to the front the nurse would laugh,” said the 63-year-old.

“What was immediately obvious was, unlike me, the vast majority of the women that I met were really vulnerable. They had gone through some trauma.

“A very large percentage of them had been in care. Many of them were incredibly depressed, one girl tried to commit suicide because of the separation from her children.

“It was obvious when I was speaking to a lot of people that prison doesn’t work and is not a deterrent of crime."

In her book Prisonomics: Behind Bars in Britain's Failing Prisons, Pryce writes about her own experience and how educating these women and making them more employable would benefit not only them but the public’s purse, as the cost to the taxpayer to keep a person in prison for a year is estimated to be £40,000.

But she believes ministers are ignoring this advice and will only take notice when the money runs outs.

Her sentiments were echoed by Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform.

During the meeting she said there was a ‘grim picture’ across the country and women are being failed by the criminal justice system.

But she praised charities like the Nelson Trust, who are changing this by transforming the lives of ex-offenders and providing rehabilitation.

“Women are different and we need different services,” said Frances, who has also been meeting Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Justice, to urge change.

“What’s happening across the country is women’s centres are losing their funding – it’s shameful.

“You are really making a difference to the lives of women here at the Nelson Trust.”