Howard League Scotland welcomes bold decision on Inverclyde

Responding to the news that the Scottish Government has decided not to proceed with the proposal to build a 350-bed women’s prison at Inverclyde, John Scott QC, Convenor, Howard League Scotland, said:

“Howard League Scotland strongly welcomes this decision by the Cabinet Secretary for Justice. Mr Matheson has done exactly as he promised – despite the short time since he took office and the urgency of the situation, he has reviewed all the evidence and submissions, and ensured that the final decision was the right one. It is a bold decision and will be recognised as such by all those who have voiced their concerns about HMP Inverclyde. In deciding not to proceed with the proposal to build a new women’s prison at Inverclyde, the Cabinet Secretary is opening up the potential for greater use of community-based solutions for women who offend and women who are at risk of offending. This will benefit all of us. By dealing appropriately and effectively with this vulnerable group of women, Scotland will be a safer place.

“The 2012 report of the Commission on Women Offenders was clear that most women in prison in Scotland today have “complex needs that relate to their social circumstances, previous histories of abuse and mental health and addiction problems”. The report stated unequivocally that most women who have offended do not need to be in prison and that the impact of imprisonment on women and their families is often catastrophic. It was for this reason that the report recommended that Cornton Vale was closed and replaced with a “smaller specialist prison for those women offenders serving a statutory defined long-term sentence and those who present a significant risk to the public”.

“We commend the hard work carried out by those in the Scottish Prison Service who have been working on the design of the new prison. We hope that the learning derived from this process can be put to good use in a smaller custodial unit which will house the small number of women in Scotland serving long-term sentences and who need to be in prison for reasons of public protection.

“Fully implementing the well researched recommendations of the Commission on Women Offenders will mark Scotland out as a progressive country which determines its penal policy according to the best evidence. We hope that this bold move represents a first step on the road to reducing the size of the female prison population in Scotland. We wholeheartedly support the Scottish Government in this endeavour.

“We express the hope that all of those who have taken part in the debate in this matter will continue to take part in the challenges before us. Today’s decision was a necessary first step but much work remains to be done. Given the interest in the matter across political parties, the Scottish Parliament, and civic Scotland, we hope also that further constructive engagement will be possible. The scale of imprisonment of women in Scotland has been a scandal since before the Scottish Parliament was created. Many strong words have been spoken in condemnation over many years but, until today, the strength of criticism and the best of intentions have proved inadequate. This decision takes us on considerably from good intentions. ”

26 January 2015

HLS in the news: automatic early release

HLS was called to give evidence to the Justice Committee on a proposed Bill which would remove automatic early release for prisoners serving the longest sentences. Lisa Mackenzie, policy and public affairs manager, is quoted stressing the need for an evidence based approach: 'Let's measure the proposals against the policy objectives - I think we have some concerns they won't live up to that'.

Read more here:
Glasgow South and Eastwood ExtraPrisoners plan 'may increase risk'
Scotsman“No merit” in ending of early prison release


Ban on automatic early release

The ban on automatic early release for sex offenders will show that politics, rather than evidence, shapes Scottish penal policy. Internationally, between 4% and 30% those imprisoned for sexual offences are reconvicted of another crime (not necessarily sexual in nature); a reoffending rate that is lower than other serious violent offenders. Unlike most other crimes, however, sex offences marshal vitriolic public responses. Debates and discussions tend to become steered by highly emotional and punitive perspectives, and it would be easy for these views to become entrenched in Scottish penal policy as well. The heat which resonates from public debates should not stop us from leading more reasoned and informed discussions of penal policy. Without reference to the evidence and research we risk developing prison policy which runs counter to possible best practice.  Bench et al, reflecting on their extensive longitudinal study of sex offender reoffending rates, remark on how divorced our conceptions of risk and sex offenders are in comparison to the empirical reality, writing that ‘The current interest in sex offenses has spawned assumptions about the behavior of sex offenders that are contrary to the findings of numerous empirical studies showing that sex offender recidivism is surprisingly low’ (2013:424).

Speaking of the blanket ban on early release for sex offenders in Ireland, O’Donnell et al write that it ‘makes it difficult to incentivize them to participate in treatment programmes. However, we know that periods of parole are typically short, measured in months rather than years, and that sex offenders are unlikely to recidivate soon after release (Friendship and Thornton, 2001). If the assessment of risk is to play a role in the determination of parole then this must redound to the advantage of sex offenders’ (2008: 138).

We know that supervised release back into the community supports desistance; easing the difficult post-prison transition as well as providing mechanisms of continued criminal justice monitoring for the protection for public safety. Moreover, the ‘community management of sex offenders can be done safely in the majority of cases if the right things are done and done well’ (Kemshall 2012).

A sizeable challenge then faces Scottish politicians and policymakers: to run the gauntlet of media misrepresentation and the heat of public ire regarding sex offences (and lest we forget, a reaction which is often rooted in compassion as much as punitvism), and ignite a discussion about the aims of prison and supervision for sex offenders which is evidence-led.


Find out more:

Scotland: Recidivism amongst Serious Violent and Sexual Offenders


Bench, L. and Allen, T.D (2013) Assessing Sex Offender Recidivism Using Multiple Measures: A Longitudinal Analysis, in The Prison Journal, 93(4):411-428.

Friendship, C. and D. Thornton (2001) ‘Sexual Reconviction for Sex Offenders Released from Prison in England and Wales: Implications for Evaluating Treatment’, British Journal of Criminology 41(2): 285–92.

Howard League Scotland, Proposal to end automatic early release.

O’Donnell, I., Baumer, E.P. and Hughes, N (2008) Recidivism in the Republic of Ireland, in Criminology and Criminal Justice 8(2):123-146.

Kemshall, K. Presentation made to Members of the Legislative Assembly, Stormont, April24th, 2012, sponsored by NIACRO: Public Protection: What works in the safe management of sexual offenders?.

Scottish Government: Bill to End Automatic Early Release.

Scottish Parliament Information Centre: Prisoners (Control of Release) (Scotland) Bill

Grampian Prison Radio Station

Grampian prison is to begin broadcasting a new prison radio station. According to news reports, the station was made possible thanks to Lottery funding, and it is the first of kind in the UK.

Read more here:

New radio station for Grampian prisoners, in Press and Journal

January 2015 Scottish Prison Population