New prison strategy will focus on non-custodial and community methods
Controversial plans for a new women’s jail in Scotland will not go ahead – with the Scottish Government saying it will look at community and non-custodial alternatives instead.
Charities and prison reformers had spoken out against the £75 million scheme, which would have seen a facility built on a former high school site in Greenock.
It would have replaced Cornton Vale in Stirling, which has been branded as “not fit for purpose”.
However, justice secretary Michael Matheson announced the plan would be scrapped on Monday morning (26 January) after a visit to the 218 centre in Glasgow, which is run by charity Turning Point Scotland.
The 12-bed residential unit provides an alternative to prison for some offenders and offers a range of compulsory and optional group work sessions and one-to-one support.
We need to transform services for women so that we can help them break the cycle of reoffending and they can start making a positive contribution to society.
Matheson said: “Since taking up post as justice secretary, I have been looking closely at proposals for a new prison for female offenders at Inverclyde. I’ve also listened carefully to the views expressed by a number of key interest groups.
“I’ve decided that the current plans for a prison for women in Inverclyde should not go ahead. It does not fit with my vision of how a modern and progressive country should be addressing female offending. We need to be bolder and take a more radical and ambitious approach in Scotland.
“When it comes to the justice system, we must be smarter with the choices we make and be more sophisticated in the way in which we deal with female offenders.”
Matheson said future proposals for the women’s prison estate would be guided by the Commission on Women Offenders (CWO), which was set up by the Scottish Government in 2012 and headed by former lord advocate Elish Angiolini.
He said: “We know that women offenders are far less likely to be a danger to the public compared with men. We also know that the families and children of female offenders are more likely to go off the rails and offend themselves if mothers are jailed miles away from home. This turns into a vicious circle, affecting future generations, and is doing nothing to address reoffending.
“I believe we should be investing in smaller regional and community-based custodial facilities across the country, rather than a large new prison for women. This approach would be more closely aligned with the vision set out by Dame Elish. It also demonstrates the Scottish Government’s commitment to tackling inequalities.
“We need to ensure that links to the family and community can be maintained, whilst targeted work is undertaken to address the specific issue which is fuelling the crime such as alcohol, drugs or mental health issues."
The CWO recommended that most women prisoners on remand or serving short-term sentences should be held in local prisons, that supported accommodation should be commissioned as an alternative to custody and that a range of alternatives to prosecution and to imprisoning women on remand should be developed.
It also said the existing Cornton Vale women’s prison in Stirling was not fit for purpose and should be replaced with a smaller specialist unit for long-term prisoners and those who present a significant risk to the public.
Martin Cawley, chief executive of Turning Point Scotland, said: “Community based alternatives to custody, like 218, support women to make positive changes in their lives by providing a safe, structured environment to help them improve health and wellbeing and address many of the underlying issues that contribute towards their offending, such as substance misuse issues.
“Many of the women using the service have a range of complex needs such as addiction, poor mental or physical health and trauma issues. By addressing these underlying issues, it reduces the likelihood of them reoffending in future.”
Alan Staff, chief executive of Apex, which works with offenders and ex-offenders, said: “We are delighted that this decision offers the opportunity to consider the most appropriate response to the pressing issue of why we imprison so many women and what we can do to improve matters.
“We hope that the breathing space gained will allow a truly joined-up consideration of the whole picture which should include improved accommodation for those women who require imprisonment in smaller local centres, a more enlightened approach to remand decisions and greater emphasis on prevention.
“Scotland should set standards not only for the very best prison provision but also for restricting the numbers imprisoned to the minimum required for public safety, and this applies to men and women alike.”
John Scott QC, convenor of Howard League Scotland, which campaigns for prison reform, said: "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."