women imprisonment

International Women's Day

On International Women’s Day we think of the almost 400 women who are currently detained in Scottish prisons.

News released today by SPS shows images of a new smaller prison for women to be opened in 2020. Scotland has a history of trying to be innovative in regards to women’s imprisonment. Yet the failure of these innovations is also an inescapable part of Scotland’s contemporary prison history, as self-harm and suicide have continued inside the prison, and women’s poverty and social exclusion continue to be entrenched by having been imprisoned. And despite efforts, over the last 40 years we have witnessed the steadily increasing number of women imprisoned in Scotland. But there are lessons in failure that can help us re-think the future of women's penal policy so that it can meet the demands of social justice.

We welcome that the new prison will hold around 20 women. HLS firmly believe that the social and rehabilitative value of small prisons far outstrips the expedient value of economies of scale of larger prisons. But real penal reform and innovation will not be found in a small scale expansion of the women’s prison estate, but through decarceration. We hope that this new prison is a development in that direction. Scottish government should formally commit to reducing the size of the women’s prison population to at least half of what it currently is. With public and political backing, Scotland can take this opportunity to be a world leader in social justice and penal reform by radically cutting the number of females in custody.

However, if we do reduce the prison infrastructure to hold less than 200 women and girls (which would be half the current number), how can the government guarantee against overcrowding? While the recent plans in the Management of Offenders (Scotland) Bill make provisions to extend electronic monitoring which can alleviate prisoner numbers, as HLS recently wrote, this brings with it other risks to citizenship and community life. We should not lose sight that social justice is not only about imprisoning better, but imprisoning less.

Women's Penal Policy Campaign Still Needs Champions

A recent article from Professor Mike Nellis addresses the ongoing struggles to achieve female penal policy reform since plans for HMP Inverclyde prison were halted in January. For HLS, this  announcement came after a long campaign against the prison, however, it does not mark the end of the process but rather signals a new beginning for women’s penal policy in Scotland. However, can anything truly radical be achieved when traditional balances of power remain, namely ‘the continuing Scottish Prison Service (SPS) domination of the debate on the future of women offenders’ as well as ‘the power of the sheriffs/judiciary to exempt themselves from democratic debate on policy as and when they choose’

As Prof Nellis writes, on this issue the government need to hear from outside voices, those same voices that rallied against the prison in the first place. Howard League Scotland continue to be a leading voice in this agenda, and by becoming a  member of HLS that you add your voice and the weight of public support to this cause. If we are to make reform a reality then now, more than ever, we must add our voices to the campaign for Scotland’s community based penal system for women.

Read more:

Mike Nellis, After HMP Inverclyde: where power lies in Scotland’s penal reform debateScottish Justice Matters.

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

Pat Carlen on Women in Prison - an indictment of society

Pat Carlen reflecting on her seminal work in Cornton Vale, her words remain as perinent and as urgent now as they did then:

"Insofar as prisons debilitate, women's prisons feed off their own product. But it is an indictment of this society, and not of the prison system, when women tell me that they will go out of prison to a world that has even less to offer than the prison itself. Depressed and alone, some sink into a state where they become
careless of what happens to them. They re-offend and the circle repeats itself again and again."

Read the full article here

Death, Addiction and Decay - Health matters in Scottish prisons

Annual Report of the Chief Medical Officer 2013 - Medical Leadership in Scotland

The Scottish Prison Service and NHS face a daily challenge ensuring those detained in prison receive all necessary forms of care. Given the extremely high levels of incarceration in Scotland, this is no small task. That is why the recent Annual Report of the Chief Medical Officer provides illuminating, and also troubling insight into care and need in Scottish custody in 2013.

Nationally, health inequalities remain a ‘major problem in Scotland’, operating in criminal justice spheres ‘offers an opportunity for people in the community who find services hardest to reach, to benefit from support even of the briefest nature’. The report makes clear how problematic it can be to craft the policy and practice of healthcare in criminal justice and not consider those inseparable broader social inequities; stating that it ‘remains the case that key determinants of health are poverty, housing and access to welfare or employment opportunities, along with social aspects of rehabilitation. Without addressing them, risk factor and health improvement intervention will have limited impact and this applies equally to police custody and prisons’.

The disproportionately high medical and healthcare need among the Scottish prison population as compared to the general population was illustrated by a number of key statistics:

  • 54% of 200,000 people who had been in police custody in Scotland had problems with alcohol and drugs.
  • 68% of the same group had difficulties with substance misuse, and problems with both medical and mental health.
  • 73% of prisoners are believed to have an alcohol problem.
  • 36% are believed to be alcohol dependent.
  • At the time of the offence, 45% of prisoner reported being under the influence of alcohol, and;
  • 39% reported that at the time of their offence they were under the influence of drugs.
  •  Upon reception to prison, 77% of prisoners tested as positive for illegal drugs (33% for opiates)
  • It is believed that 19% of the prison population are Hepatitis C positive.
  • About 10% of men in the general population in Scotland suffer from dental decay, compared to 29% of men in Scottish prisons.
  • For women in prison in Scotland, 42% suffer from dental decay, compared to 3% of women in the general population.
  • Both men and women who have been in prison have higher risk of death than the general Scottish populace. The risk of mortality is particularly high in the immediate post release period ‘as prisoners return to the poor circumstances, poverty of opportunity and hope that they left’.

Read the report, particularly the Health & Justice section here

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