More fights and assaults per prisoner have been recorded at Cornton Vale women’s prison over the past five years than in any male jail north of the Border.
Since 2006, women at the Stirling prison have committed 489 assaults compared with 447 at HMP Barlinnie, even though the Glasgow jail has four times as many inmates.
Justice groups last night condemned the figures as “shocking” and blamed ongoing problems of overcrowding and boredom for much of the violence.
Conditions at the jail have been the subject of serious concern for many years. Eight inmates were found hanged in their cells between 1995 and 1998, and two died in one week in 2001.
Figures released under Freedom of Information legislation show shocking levels of violence among prisoners inside Cornton Vale compared with male prisons.
As well as the 489 cases of assault, where one prisoner attacked another, there have been a further 664 fights recorded between female inmates.
The assault rate for Cornton Vale, adjusted for its typical population of 377, is 1.29 assaults per prisoner over the five years. Aberdeen is the next worst prison at 0.87 assaults per prisoner.
Cornton Vale’s combined rate for assaults and fights is 1.53 per prisoner, much higher than the Scottish male prison average of 0.86 and still ahead of next worst Aberdeen at 1.34.
Women prisoners at Cornton Vale also topped the Scottish league for the number of reports of inmates using threatening and abusive words or behaviour. Cornton Vale had 886 cases compared with second placed Edinburgh, which had 800 reports.
There were also 27 reports of “indecent and obscene acts” at the female prison compared with 30 at privately run Kilmarnock, which has a population of around 600 inmates.
James Kelly, Scottish Labour’s shadow justice minister, said: “These are worrying statistics and it is important to understand what lies behind the level of reported assaults. The statistics could be linked to the poor standards in the prison, which were recently criticised by Brigadier Hugh Monro in his inspection report. It is important that these issues are properly considered by the special commission that has been set up to examine the treatment of female offenders in Scotland’s justice system.”
Isabella Goldie, head of the Mental Health Foundation Scotland Office, said: “These statistics are shocking. The fear of violence will put these women’s wellbeing at risk and is likely to have an even greater impact on women who are already vulnerable such as those with mental health problems.
“The violence is likely to be a symptom of boredom and overcrowding, which were also identified as areas of concern within the 2011 inspection report. This is particularly worrying given the high numbers of vulnerable women.”
John Scott, a defence lawyer and head of the Howard League for Penal Reform in Scotland, said: “When you put so many damaged people there there is going to be violence.
“The recent report from prison governors highlighted that they received a significant number of women with mental health problems and a significant number of women who have been abused.”
He said news that a female prison was Scotland’s roughest should not be a shock: “It’s surprising only until you realise who we are sending to prison. Prisoners at Cornton Vale tend to be the most damaged individuals in prison or elsewhere, and for some of them, violence is a lifelong means of communication.”
Bill Whyte, director of the Criminal Justice Social Work Development Centre for Scotland, said: “We are failing these women and we are failing the community.
“Cornton Vale was built for one purpose and it is bulging at the seams.”
Brigadier Monro said in his report released last week that conditions at Cornton Vale remained “unacceptably poor” and that the atmosphere of boredom in the prison created an environment that lent itself to reoffending.
“I’m very concerned about Cornton Vale. Action is being taken to improve it and I will be going back to do follow-up inspections