Leaders: Women need help not a prison cell

A female prisoner in a cell at Cornton Vale. Picture: PA
A female prisoner in a cell at Cornton Vale. Picture: PA
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FEMALE imprisonment reform in Scotland has been a long time coming. At last, there is now acceptance that incarceration provides no significant reduction in re-offending.

Sixteen years ago, the then chief inspector of prisons, Clive Fairweather, said Scotland’s female prison population should be reduced from 200 to 100, on the basis that many prisoners were low-level offenders.

But it was not until 2012 that radical reform became a realistic prospect. A comprehensive report by the Commission on Women Offenders, led by former Lord Advocate Dame Elish Agiolini, made 37 recommendations, including the closure of Cornton Vale, its replacement with a smaller prison, and the addition of regional units.

At the report’s heart was a recognition that the existing system was of little benefit to either those punished, or to the public. Dame Elish highlighted the “significant cost to society” of locking up women whose addiction or mental health problems were not going to be helped by a stretch in jail.

Locking up those who break the law is, of course, a deterrent, but jailing women can have a damagingly negative impact on families and on children in particular. This can perpetuate and extenuate circumstances which contributed to the offending in the first place.

The commission found that 75 per cent of prisoners were sentenced to six months or less, and their rate of reoffending was a desperate 80 per cent. Imprisonment did not reform characters, it merely consolidated low self-esteem. The system was failing all parties.

Hearteningly, Dame Elish’s key findings are behind the course of action taken by the Scottish Government yesterday, albeit only after the scrapping of plans for a new women’s “super prison” earlier this year. A new national prison taking up to 100 inmates will be built on the Cornton Vale site, along with five small custodial centres across the country which would give the female prison population a maximum capacity of 180.

It is also to be welcomed that the units will provide “intensive support” for those affected by alcohol and drug addictions, mental health problems and domestic abuse trauma.

These measures are designed to break the cycle of re-offending, which is the key to any kind of progress on this issue. Will they work? Time will tell, but we know for sure that the existing arrangements do not work. Imprisonment reinforces rather than treats habits, and a new method of addressing these problems has to be attempted.

Critics will question whether 180 jail places in Scotland is enough. The answer depends on how successful these attempts are at achieving rehabilitation, but the reduced figure should help to focus minds on using prison only as a last alternative from now on.

Let’s drink to drinking in moderation

SOME would say there is a slight difficulty in celebrating the opening of Scotland’s 115th working distillery, in a country where restrictive measures are under regular consideration in a bid to combat alcohol abuse.

Although alcohol consumption has fallen in Scotland in the past five years, sales remain 17 per cent higher than in

England and Wales. There is no attempt to pretend this problem does not exist or is over-stated, and the Scottish Government recently restated that it remains “committed to tackling Scotland’s difficult relationship with alcohol”.

It is tempting, then, to point to one of the nation’s greatest weaknesses, then point to one of the nation’s greatest exports, and ask: ‘What’s the big mystery?” But that would be simplistic, and wrong. The tide is turning, and the call for responsible drinking is being heard. Scotland’s “difficult relationship with alcohol” would not be

resolved if every distillery in the country was closed tomorrow.

The country’s whisky-making tradition is a matter for great national pride, both in terms of heritage and in the more bottom-line measure of our manufactured exports, where whisky is currently worth £4 billion a year. The industry is of great importance to the Scottish economy, and any expansion on that front – such as the launch of the Dalmunach Distillery on the banks of the River Spey – is to be given a warm welcome.

Whisky is one of Scotland’s great success stories, giving the nation its place as a world leader in a sector which reaches every part of the globe. We can all drink to that – but responsibly, of course.