Report calls for Cornton Vale prison to be closed

SCOTLAND’S only all-female prison should be demolished and replaced with a smaller specialist jail for high-risk women offenders, a report commissioned by the Scottish Government has recommended.

A radical overhaul of the way female criminals are dealt with was outlined in the report by the former Lord Advocate Dame Elish Angiolini as she responded to the rising concern over the explosion in the number of Scottish women behind bars.

• Cornton Vale would be replaced by a smaller specialist prison for women serving long-term sentences who pose a significant risk to the public, with a separate unit for young women, purpose-built mother and baby unit, plus a family-friendly visitors unit.

• Community Justice Centres: one-stop shops to change offenders’ behaviour – offenders would be given one-on-one mentoring, supported accommodation and mental health programmes.

• Procurators-fiscal would have power to hand down Work Orders and impose “composite diversion orders” – unpaid work with rehabilitative elements. Police would have powers to hand out “conditional cautions” that would see women offenders attend community justice centres.

• “Bail Supervision Plus”, as an alternative to remand, would involve mentoring, supported accommodation and access to community justice centres. Electronic monitoring to be a condition of bail.

• Pilot “problem-solving summary criminal court” for repeat offenders with complex needs who commit lower-level crimes.

Pulling down Cornton Vale was the most eye-catching recommendation in a wide-ranging document that detailed the conclusions of an eight-month review conducted by the Commission on Women Offenders, chaired by the former Lord Advocate.

Overcrowding has repeatedly been identified as a major problem at Cornton Vale, which today houses 312 prisoners, 68 of whom are on remand. That compares with just 200 inmates 14 years ago, when almost all female prisoners were sent to the jail near Stirling.

Today, female prisoners are also held in Edinburgh, Greenock, Aberdeen and Inverness, bringing the total number of women in jail in Scotland to 478.

The doubling of the number of women in prison over the past decade has taken place, even though 75 per cent of custodial sentences imposed on females are for six months or less.

The report said Cornton Vale prison should be replaced with a smaller specialist prison for long-term and high risk prisoners, as well as regional units to hold short-term and remand prisoners.

Yesterday’s report made 37 recommendations, designed to tackle the problems that cause female offending at their roots.

The proposals include providing additional powers for procurators fiscal to impose composite diversion orders, which combine unpaid work and a rehabilitative programme as an alternative to prosecution.

It said police should be given new powers to issue conditional cautions directing women offenders to attend local community justice centres and handing judges the power to impose combined custodial and community sentences and suspended sentences.

It also recommended that a “problem solving court” be established, providing opportunities for more training for judges.

Justice secretary Kenny MacAskill hailed the report as a “vision” on how female re- offending can be reduced. The Scottish Government will set out its response to Dame Angiolini’s recommendations in the summer. Mr MacAskill said: “Protecting the public will always be my top priority, and prison remains the only option for the most serious criminals, men and women.

“However, only 2 per cent of female prisoners were involved in serious violence last year, with the majority of the population not posing a serious risk of harm to the public.

“So, instead of spending taxpayers’ money to keep offenders who do not pose a serious risk of harm to the public locked up, we must find better and more cost-effective ways of addressing their behaviour by offering real and meaningful ways for them to rehabilitate themselves in the communities that they are part of.”

Last year, the Chief Inspector of Prisons for Scotland, Brigadier Hugh Monro, found that the jail was overcrowded and prisoners were still not getting the best treatment, despite an inspection report highlighting the same failings in 2009.

Over the years, the difficult conditions at Cornton Vale have earned it notoriety, particularly during the mid-1990s when three inmates committed suicide and another attempted to kill herself.

The commission – set up last year – was tasked with finding a better way to treat female criminals, with the aim of reducing levels of re-offending. Dame Elish said the majority of females who offended did so while suffering from “addiction, trauma or mental health problems”. She said Scotland’s criminal justice system needs a “radical reworking” if the number of female offenders is to be reduced.

Dame Elish said: “We no longer can ignore the significant cost to society of locking up women, the majority of whom have committed offences while suffering from addiction, trauma or mental health problems.

“In my 28 years as a prosecutor, I saw at first hand the tragic impact of women offending and re-offending on their victims, the local community, their families and themselves.

“Undoubtedly, some women must be in prison to protect the public and to mark the seriousness of their crime. But for women who are repeatedly committing lower-level offences, we need to get better at tackling the root cause of their problems in the community, and allowing the community to benefit from the punishments imposed.

“This report focuses on practical measures that can be commenced during this parliament to reduce re-offending, reverse the increase in the female prisoner population and ultimately, and most importantly, keep the public safe from crime.”

• Read the Commission on Women Offenders report in full (PDF)