Is prison the only future for women's penal policy?

It is not possible to contemplate a sustained reduction in Scotland’s female prison  population without considering the balance between the provision of custodial  sentences and the provision of community disposals. These are two halves of the  same coin. Two years on from the publication of the report of the Commission on  Women Offenders, we are concerned that the balance is still significantly tilted in  favour of custody rather than community-based approaches to addressing women’s offending behaviour. Nor is it possible to envisage reductions in the female prison  population without focussing on the root causes of women’s offending – poverty, substance and alcohol misuse, mental health problems, histories of domestic and  sexual abuse. These issues must be tackled if we are to prevent women from entering the criminal justice system in the first place.

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice recently reflected that the plight of women caught up in our criminal justice system was one of “the most pressing social issues of recent times”. The Committee will be familiar with the characteristics and needs of women offenders, and the rise of Scotland‟s female prison population, which was the spur for the establishment of the Commission.

The female prison population has risen by 120% since 2000, despite conviction rates remaining stable over the same period. Whilst there has been a small decrease in the number of women in custody over the last year, it remains to be seen whether this reduction will persist. According to Scottish Prison Service figures, on 6 June 2014, there were 332 convicted female prisoners and 75 untried female offenders in custody.

Whilst the Scottish Government nominally accepted the majority of the Commission‟s 37 recommendations, we are concerned that some of the recommendations are not being implemented as the report‟s authors intended.

A replacement for Cornton Vale
We were pleased to note the Commission‟s recommendation to close HMP Cornton Vale and welcomed the proposal that it should be 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” (Report of the Commission on Women Offenders, April 2012, p.10)

We are therefore disappointed that the Scottish Government intends to construct a new women‟s prison with a maximum capacity of 350 that will handle convicted and 
remand adult and young offenders of varying legal and security categories and of varying sentence length, from short term sentences to life prisoners. This is a clear departure from the recommendation made by the Commission. In addition to HMP Inverclyde, women will continue to be held in HMP Edinburgh and HMP Grampian. There are 50 places for female prisoners in HMP Grampian and HMP Edinburgh currently holds around 100 women. Therefore the projected capacity of the female prison estate once HMP Inverclyde is operational in 2017 will be around 500. HMP Inverclyde is expected to have a lifespan of at least 60 years and the contract for its construction will go out to tender in October 2014.

Building to projections
The failure to reduce capacity in the female prison estate is often justified on the grounds that it is necessary to adhere to prison population projections. However, there is evidence to suggest that creating capacity in the form of new prison places may itself actually increase the likelihood of a rise in the prison population. Cautioning against over-reliance on historical patterns in the prison population, criminologist Dr Sarah Armstrong wrote recently that “prison forecasts are at risk of triggering a self-fulfilling prophecy encouraging capital expansion”. Writing about the prison boom in the USA, Spellman (2009) concludes that “nothing was inevitable about the prison build up in the United States” and that a “dramatic improvement in the infrastructure for delivery of alternative sanctions” is what is likely to be required to reduce prison populations.

The balance between custody and community disposals
Therefore, if we are to reduce the female prison population in Scotland, as well as a reduction in prison places, there must also be sufficient investment in community disposals for women. This ‘twin-track’ approach is essential if we are to bring a halt to the upward spiral of female imprisonment in Scotland. However, we are not yet convinced that the commitment exists for a sufficient shift in resources to enable this to happen. 

The Scottish Government has allocated £3m over the two-year period 2013-2015 to support women offenders in the community. This is welcome, however, it pales in comparison with the annual cost of imprisoning women. The Scottish Prison Service estimated in 2011/12 that the average annual cost of imprisonment per prisoner was £32,371. Based on an average daily female prisoner population of 400, the annual cost of imprisonment for women is in the region of £13m (although it is likely to be higher than this, given the additional needs of female prisoners). We also note that the capital expenditure for HMP Inverclyde is expected to be around £75m.

Privately, a number of organisations working with women offenders have conceded that the resources allocated to community-based interventions are a „drop in the 
ocean‟. We also note their concerns about the short-term nature of funding arrangements, which threaten the sustainability of those services, and the ability to demonstrate their effectiveness.

We know that the needs of women offenders are better addressed in the community and the Commission‟s report highlighted a number of existing services supporting women in the community. The Cabinet Secretary for Justice indicated in his October 2013 report to Parliament that funds would be made available for the expansion of the Willow project in Edinburgh. However, whilst the Scottish Government intends to maintain its £1.7m annual funding of the 218 Service in Glasgow, we understand that no additional funds have been made available to the Service since the publication ofthe Commission‟s report.

The Commission‟s report highlighted the importance of leadership in driving forward this agenda. We are disappointed that the recommendation to establish a national Community Justice and Prison Delivery Board has not been implemented, presumably due to the fact that the Scottish Government is currently considering reform of community justice in Scotland more generally. The existence of such a body would provide a critical function, increasing accountability and oversight, andenabling a rebalancing of responses to women‟s offending away from custodial sentences to community-based solutions.

We are also concerned that the Scottish Government appears to be stepping back from responsibility for oversight of the response to the Commission‟s report. When Howard League Scotland asked the Cabinet Secretary for Justice whether the proposals for HMP Inverclyde were in keeping with the Commission‟s overall aspirations, he replied saying that decisions relating to the size and design of HMP Inverclyde were operational matters for the Scottish Prison Service. 

It is unfair to expect the Scottish Prison Service – whose business it is to build and operate prisons – to take an overview of the whole package required to reduce female imprisonment in Scotland, when so much of the task of meeting that challenge is beyond their control. 

The Commission‟s report acknowledged the role that sentencing has played in the growth of the female prison population in Scotland, making five recommendations in this area and further three recommendations on „Alternatives to remand‟. It noted research carried out by the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research which found “general longer-term increases in the use of custody compared to other disposals and some degree of upward drift in sentence length” (p.19). It would seem that sentencing practice remains unchanged and that progress in this area has been limited. Clearly this is cause for concern given the role that sentencing has played in contributing to the growth of Scotland‟s female prison population.

Tackling the root causes of women’s offending behaviour
Our aspiration should be to prevent women coming into contact with the criminal justice in the first instance. Therefore we must address the social disadvantage that shapes some women‟s lives. Real success in preventing offending behaviour, as well as reducing offending, lies beyond the realms of penal policy. 

Very few women need to be in prison for reasons of public protection and the pains of imprisonment are more acute for women than men, as evidenced by the high rates of self-harm and mental illness seen in the female prison population. The damaging, often long lasting, effects on children of maternal imprisonment are also well documented. The £60m allocated to the construction of HMP Inverclyde would be put to better use resourcing community justice centres, as well as the “smaller specialist prison” envisaged by the Commission on Women Offenders. The radicalism at the heart of the Commission‟s report is in danger of being lost, as we once again fall back on imprisonment as the primary response to women‟s offending.

Howard League Scotland
18 June 

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Past, Present & Future - Women's Penal Policy

Howard League Scotland has been clear about its objection to the proposed new women's prison HMP Inverclyde. We recently provided evidence to the Scottish Parliament's Justice Committee voicing concerns that the decision to build the new prison is not in keeping with the recommendations of the 2012 report of the Commission on Women Offenders.

It is worth casting our minds back to the early 1970s, when the decision was taken to build HMP Cornton Vale. This documentary, made in 1972, considers the rationale for building Cornton Vale (which the reporter notes "sets the pattern for future Scots prisons"):

Scotland on Screen -Women’s Prisons 1
Scotland on Screen -Women’s Prisons 2

And this following episode of STV's 'Scottish Women' sought to address the spate of suicides that took place in Cornton Vale in the 1990s.

As Scotland embarks on building a new prison for women, can we be sure we have learned the lessons of past failures?


PQ on Inverclyde - different security levels?



10 April 2014

Index Heading: Learning and Justice

 Alison McInnes (North East Scotland) (Scottish Liberal Democrats): To ask the Scottish Government  (a) how many and (b) what proportion of female prisoners are classified as high security.


Mr Kenny MacAskill MSP:

I have asked Colin McConnell, Chief Executive of the Scottish Prison Service, to respond. His response is as follows:

The Scottish Prison Service does not use the security classification system. Prisons are classified as requiring high, medium or low levels of supervision.



10 April 2014                                               

Index Heading: Learning and Justice

 Alison McInnes (North East Scotland) (Scottish Liberal Democrats): To ask the Scottish Government  what the highest security category of prisoners at HMP Inverclyde will be and what proportion are expected to be classified as high security.


Mr Kenny MacAskill MSP:

I have asked Colin McConnell, Chief Executive of the Scottish Prison Service, to respond. His response is as follows:

The Scottish Prison Service operates a High, Medium and Low supervision system which governs the level of supervision and monitoring prisoners require. HMP & YOI Inverclyde will hold women prisoners of all supervision levels. There are currently around 18% of women prisoners classified as High Supervision.



PQ on Inverclyde Family Visiting Facilities



28 April 2014           

Index Heading: Learning and Justice

 Alison McInnes (North East Scotland) (Scottish Liberal Democrats): To ask the Scottish Government  what provision HMP Inverclyde will make for prisoners to receive private family visits from (a) children and (b) young relatives.


Mr Kenny MacAskill MSP:

I have asked Colin McConnell, Chief Executive of the Scottish Prison Service, to respond. His response is as follows:

“As you will be aware, HMP &YOI Inverclyde is currently in Design Phase. The Design Team’s brief is to focus on activities and play facilities that are suitable for mother and child to enjoy together. The Design Team are working towards providing a comfortable, relaxed and family/child friendly environment, designed to enhance the overall visit experience and encourage the maintenance of links with family and friends.

It is our intention that both indoor and outdoor play areas will be provided for visits with small children. The outdoor visits garden will be accessible by all visitors and additional arrangements will also be made to provide suitable activity for older children, such as access to age appropriate reading material and other suitable activities.

Once operational, it is our intention that the visit room will be used outside normal visiting times for bonding and other child visits. These arrangements will reflect the good practices already in place at HMP & YOI Cornton Vale.”


Cabinet Secretary for Justice Kenny MacAskill - Women's Penal Policy

Last week, we invited nine experts working with women offenders to review what progress there had been in the two years since the publication of the report of the Commission on Women Offenders. This included reviews from organisations such as SACRO, the Violence Reduction Unit, Families Outside, Scotland's Commissioner for Children and Young People, Circle Scotland, the 218 Service, two Community Justice Authority Chief Officers and the Convener of the Scottish Working Group on Women Offenders. Below Cabinet Secretary for Justice Kenny MacAskill outlines his own view on progress to date:

The Scottish Government asked the Rt. Hon. Dame Elish Angiolini DBE, QC to chair the independent Commission on Women Offenders because the issue of how women are dealt with in the criminal justice system, and the reasons why the female prison population has been rising over the last decade, are amongst some of the most pressing social issues of recent times.

In the two years that have followed the publication of the Commission’s report, we have worked in partnership with a wide range of partners and stakeholders to make substantial progress on implementation of the Commission’s recommendations. This work is beginning to yield results and we are already seeing significant changes to the landscape of services for women offenders across Scotland.

The Commission recognised that prison was a necessary part of the criminal justice system’s response to serious and prolific female offenders – but it placed a strong emphasis on the importance of prison providing a range of gender-sensitive offending behaviour programmes and interventions aimed at addressing the particular needs of women. The Scottish Prison Service (SPS) has met the Commission’s challenge head on and a new national prison for women, with local provision for women offenders from the west of Scotland, will open in Inverclyde in 2017. The design layout and culture within the new Establishment reflects a fresh approach to rehabilitation and wellbeing, and it will mirror all of the Commission’s aspirations for what a prison for women should be.

In the meantime, and until these new facilities are ready, significant investment by the SPS in HMP and YOI Cornton Vale, has radically improved the environment and conditions there. Staff working with women continue to receive specific training in supporting women with mental ill health and more generally in how to meet the particular needs of women in custody.

Additionally, a new regional unit for women within HMP and YOI Grampian has already opened and now women from the north and north east of Scotland who are remanded or serving a sentence, can be held closer to their families and communities.

The Scottish Government has also been working with the 8 Community Justice Authorities across Scotland to develop support for women offenders in line with the Commission’s aspirations. We have provided £3m in 2014 and 2015 to deliver community justice centres and services. These new services will support women to reduce their reoffending, by helping them to make the changes they need to make in their lives to move away from crime and become active and participating citizens.

We have also invested a further £10m through the Reducing Reoffending Change Fund to establish a number of national and local mentoring services for women and young male prolific offenders. Mentoring is a common-sense measure to provide practical support, where and when it is needed by an offender. The “Shine” mentoring service for women, which is delivered by a partnership of Third and public sector partners, will provide help to women offenders across Scotland.

In response to the report of the Commission on Women Offenders, we agreed to trialling a problem solving summary criminal court in Scotland. This trial will provide an opportunity to establish the proactive role of the judiciary, join up services and demonstrate to communities that community justice options can be responsive to local communities whilst also being effective in reducing reoffending. We are working with local partners to develop at least one problem solving court in Scotland.

Problem solving courts harness the authority of the judge both to join up the services that are required to address someone’s offending behaviour, and to engage directly in a relationship with an offender in a way that motivates and encourages them to stop offending. Problem solving courts also tend to engage more energetically and directly with their communities, so that public opinion is both reflected in, and led by, the process of developing the court. These types of courts now have an established track record internationally. Having originated in the US in the 1990s, there are now thousands of problem solving courts across the world, and their numbers continue to grow. There is now a substantial evidence base supporting this approach.

The Commission had strong views about the need for strategic leadership and co-ordination for community justice services across Scotland, and we have included their views in ongoing consultation on the future of justice in Scotland. Last week the Scottish Government launched its consultation “Future Model for Community Justice in Scotland”. The new model will see strategic planning and delivery of community justice services passing to Community Planning Partnerships (CPPs), complemented by the creation of a national body called Community Justice Improvement Scotland (CJIS).

This model delivers a community solution to the reoffending problem, with CPPs becoming the vehicle for much needed partnership and collaboration. CJIS will drive the performance culture which will define the new arrangements, providing new opportunities for strategic commissioning of services based on an analysis of needs.

Since the Commission published its report, I have delivered two very positive progress reports to the Justice Committee of the Scottish Parliament and the Committee has been encouraged by the progress so far.

I am encouraged to see the substantial progress that has been made over the past two years. It is clear however, that there is much still to be done. The Scottish Government will continue to work hard, and with others across the whole of the public sector, so that together, we can meet the shared challenge the Commission for Women Offenders has set us all.









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