The New Women's Prison Estate in Scotland

The New Women's Prison Estate in Scotland

In August 2022, the Bella Centre, the first part of the new women's prison estate was opened. We issued the following statement to mark this: 

"10 years after publication of the Angiolini Report, the Bella Centre in Dundee is finally open. It provides places for 16 women and has been described as “the first facility of its type in the UK … taking a gender-specific and trauma informed approach to better prepare women for reintegration back into their communities”. In non-Government speak, it acknowledges that the majority of women who enter our prisons do so for short periods of time, carrying with them the scars of serious abuse and mental ill-health. With no bars on the windows and no high perimeter walls, the new centre is designed to be an unapologetic part of the local landscape, where women can feel and be seen as citizens, rather than social outcasts.

The new women’s strategy which underpins this bold approach is encouraging: each woman will have an individualised support plan that she’s devised alongside her own personal officer based on her own strengths and needs. This will take place in a therapeutic environment where any mental health issues are identified and acted upon; where the needs of any children are paramount; where setbacks are expected rather than punished; and where women have space “to heal”. We believe there’s a lot to like about this reimagining of the women’s estate, if it really is a cultural change based on a completely different rulebook. However, women should not need to go to prison for therapy. Support should also be accessible in the community, and not dependent on being convicted of a crime.

For the majority of people whose personal or professional lives don’t touch the criminal justice system, telling them that there are currently 294 women in custody in Scotland often comes as a huge surprise. Most imagine that there would be many more than that – perhaps into the thousands – and therefore see it as ‘good news’ that the figure is so low. In some ways it is good news, with the number of women receiving a custodial sentence decreasing significantly in the past 10 years. Historically, of course, overall offending rates amongst women are much lower than those of men, and patterns of offending tend to be a lesser threat to public safety. The (extremely) bad news, however, is that 32% are being held on remand, with 70% of them unlikely to go on to receive a custodial sentence.

This visionary approach must therefore apply to all women in custody in Scotland, not just the very few – circa 14% of the total women’s prison population - who have been assessed as low-risk and nearing the end of their sentence, and who will be housed in the Bella Centre and the similarly sized Lilias Centre in Glasgow. (The remainder will, clearly, continue to be held in prisons built primarily for men.) Only then will we get a good enough answer to SPS’s own question of self-evaluation, “how good is our care of women in custody?”."

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