Tom Halpin, Sacro - Women's Penal Policy

Women offenders: ‘From where I stand…’

This blog is part of a series considering developments two years on from the publication of the report by the Commission on Women Offenders. Tom Halpin, Chief Executive, SACRO and Chair of the Shine partnership, offers his perspective:

The Commission on Women Offenders Report was not a ‘wake up’ call, it was a long needed ‘holding to account’ for us all.

Today, the report card for work done to meet the Commission’s recommendations reads ‘making good progress, but still needs to focus on outcomes’.

This last year has definitely been about delivering the services that women need. Public Social Partnerships are an emerging model for designing and delivering these services. Shine Women’s Mentoring Service is now providing personal mentors to support women on a one-to-one basis with the issues many face in the community. After a period in custody, it is a difficult time for anyone and often it is not easy to access services.

For women, these issues are emotionally significant; frequently further damaging already low self-esteem. The Shine mentor will talk these things through with a woman in prison and then remain with her on release to give support both practically and emotionally for a minimum of six months. This support is designed to rebuild self-esteem and make the change needed on a personal journey to a life without offending. This is the outcome we all must support through the services we provide. It is too early to write the final report card, but progress is good.

Mentoring support is now firmly established across all Scotland’s communities and available for women leaving prison. We are also making progress supporting women on remand. This is an anomaly where the disproportionately high numbers compared to men on remand needs to be scrutinised further.

Along with other established mentoring initiatives, Shine is working with the women’s justice centres and linked services to ensure the woman’s journey is supported and joined up.

Individual testimonies from women who engage with Shine are overwhelmingly positive and provide confidence that Angiolini’s recommendation for mentoring support is the right response. Testimonies like that of Miss L, who stated that having a mentor to talk to has helped her think about the consequences of her actions and given her confidence in her ability to adhere to her plans to stop offending. She was delighted to tell her mentor that when a drug dealer had visited her home and offered her drugs, Miss L refused the offer and told him to leave and never come back.

Importantly, this is also about those dedicated workers and volunteers who support women on their journey to desistance from offending. A crucial element of the response to the Commission has been how the workforce is developing. Collaboration between public, private and third sector staff and volunteers is frankly inspirational. Building a common understanding of what mentoring support is, establishing practice standards to safeguard all and sharing learning for the benefit of women.

Scotland has responded to the Commission and is holding itself to account. But the final report grade will depend on the outcomes we achieve. There are still too many women in prison, particularly on remand.

Too many women still find themselves in the margins having difficulty accessing services like housing and health, particularly in relation to mental health.

So long as we continue to stay alert, our next report should read ‘very good and outcomes are being achieved’.

What's right for women offenders?

This time two years ago there was great optimism upon the publication of The Commission on Women's Offending. The Report highlighted that those women who end up in prison are amongst the most vulnerable members of our society. Their pasts are often marred with abuse and trauma, their presents are characterised by addiction, poverty and isolation. Further, patterns of female criminality are generally defined by low level offences and by in large they present little risk to the public. The demanding task faced by Government in wake of the report was how to transform women's penal policy to reflect these issues, how to make it effective and fair.

Two years on from the publication of the Report it is clear that some progress has been made in improving the lot of women offenders. However, there is widespread concern about the numbers of women still passing through our criminal justice system. Whilst there has been a drop in numbers, the number of women in prison continues to hover around the 400 mark. And again, whilst the proposed closure of Cornton Vale was universally welcomed, there is dismay at the plans to build a 350-bed prison in Inverclyde. It is clear that this is far from being the “smaller, specialist prison” recommended by the report.

This week, to mark this anniversary, Howard League Scotland have invited those who work with female offenders and their families to reflect on the current state of affairs. In addition to those practitioners, three women whom are resident in the 218 Project kindly gave us their time, sharing with us their stories and their positive experiences while in the 218, displaying that change can be possible when it operates on the principles of welfare and treatment, rather than incarceration. While we welcome progress, we must remain vigilant in highlighting the on-going difficulties experienced by those women in the Scottish criminal justice system.

Read coverage of these issues in today's Sunday Herald:
Women's prison population rises by 120%:
Locking up women not the answer:

CPT Recommendations Scotland - March 2014

Progress must be made if Scottish prisons are to satisfy the Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) and the European Convention on Human Rights. While progress has been made in the smooth transfer of prison health services to the NHS, the CPT have been critical of prison safety and expressed concerned over lack of meaningful and rehabilitative activity in a number of Scottish prisons. The most significant problems they highlighted were:

  • There were a number of allegations of excessive force by prison officers in Barlinnie and verbal abuse in Cornton Vale;
  • A number of prisoners in Kilmarnock felt unsafe and then prison was generally tense;
  • Upon admission to Barlinnie people were held in cupboard-like cublicles (1m squared, coloquially known as 'dog boxes');
  • Barlinnie prison is operating at 120% capacity;
  • Prisoners in Barlinnie are spending up to 22 hours a day in their cells;
  • Women held in HMP Edinburgh were also spending a similarly considerable percentage of their day confined to their cells. 

Their specific recommendations to the SPS were:

  • CPT advocates greater employment of alternatives to custody as the key means to reduce prison overcrowding; 
  • Recommends that serious mental health prisoners not be held in segregation units and be transferred more rapidly to appropriate in-patient facilities;
  • Clinical psychologists be employed to deal specifically with women prisoners who exhibit severe disorders;
  • Increased safeguards around discipline and segregation are necessary;
  • There must be increased support for foreign national prisoners.

Read the CPT Report here 

Read a summary of their report here: CPT report on the United Kingdom

Read a straightforward summary of Article 3 on the Prevention of Torture

Scotland's Prison Population 1998-2013

It is hard to recall a time when Scotland's prison population wasn't rising, and since 1998 the population has increased by 33%. Our per capita imprisonment rates far outstrips other small countries with similar populations in Europe. These figures highlight the inescapable reality that is Scottish prison excess and prison expansion.

Follow the link to check-out our prison population inforgraphic:

Scottish Sentences

Some interesting top line stats in most recent Safer Communities and Justice Brief: Avg sentence in 2012/13 was just over 9mnths, which is almost 2mnths longer than in 2006/07. Use of social work orders has increased slightly, but that is following 2 years of decreased use

See more here: