Crisis-hit women's prison 'harms' inmates

THE governor of Scotland's only women's prison has admitted the jail is making the lives of many of its inmates worse.

• A lifer in her cell at HMP Cornton Vale, Stirling. Picture: Robert Perry

Teresa Medhurst said Cornton Vale was the wrong place for some of the drug addicts and mentally ill women crowded behind its walls. And far from providing a place of rehabilitation, women were leaving the jail in a "worse" condition than they entered.

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Speaking after it was criticised in a damning inspection report, she said: "Once a woman steps through the gate of Cornton Vale, any problems or issues she may have had before are worsened by the fact of imprisonment.

"There are women here for whom community services would be a better option."

The number of women locked up in Scotland has doubled in the past decade, despite the lowest crime level since the heroin epidemic of the early 1980s.

Brigadier Hugh Monro, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons, said yesterday that the jail was so jam-packed parts of it could no longer provide basic necessities.

In his first official inspection report since taking up his post last year, he said: "Cornton Vale is in a state of crisis.

"The conditions in which most of the women live on a day-to-day basis are unacceptable. There is very little for them to do, they are constantly being moved around and the fabric of the whole estate has an unkempt, rundown feel.

"An ever-increasing prisoner population is one of the main reasons for this situation, but the establishment also seems to be drifting. It lacks a sense of purpose from the highest levels."

Specifically, he highlighted:

&149 Women in some cell blocks being forced to wait for up to two hours to use toilets at night;

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&149 Food, bedding, toilets and showers in some cell blocks "not provided to an adequate standard";

• The medical centre at Cornton Vale being "not fit for purpose". Brig Monro's findings are similar to those of his two predecessors. As early as 2002, Clive Fairweather, a former chief inspector and another ex-military man – he used to be in the SAS – warned overcrowding at Cornton Vale was a "recipe for disaster".

Brig Monro went out of his way not to criticise prison officers and managers. "I commend the efforts of prison staff to cope with this serious situation," he said, stressing that Ms Medhurst had been in post for only six months. He also found Cornton Vale – which suffered 11 suicides between 1997 and 2002 – now felt "safe" for prisoners and staff alike.

Ms Medhurst, while acknowledging the pressures brought about by overcrowding, said she felt the fact the jail was now safe meant Brig Monro was wrong to say it was "in crisis".

Cornton Vale, which has 258 cells, last year saw its population hit an all-time record of 450, way above its legal capacity of 375. It had dipped down to 399 by the time of the inspections in September and had fallen to 351 yesterday. That is partly thanks to a new women's unit at the largely male Greenock prison.

However, only 90 of the women at Cornton Vale are long-term prisoners, including 25 lifers. The jail had 2,700 admissions last year, and most inmates spend weeks rather than months locked up, many on remand. Most are understood to have been accused or convicted of offences linked with substance abuse, such as prostitution, theft or nuisance behaviour.

The Scottish Government, backed by a special commission led by former first minister Henry McLeish, believes the solution is to scrap short-term sentences. Asked what she thought of that, Ms Medhurst said: "By the time those serving six months are settled in, got to grips with their addiction issues, and are actually starting to engage with us, it is almost time for them to leave.

"We signpost them on to community-based services, but we can't be sure that they take them up."

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Mr Fairweather agreed with Ms Medhurst that many inmates would be better getting help on the outside. "There are women there who definitely need locking up," he said.

"There are probably safely still about 150 or 200 who are just bloody nuisances and pests, repeat minor offenders who are not really a major threat to society. They are just poor women who need help and that help isn't somehow there in the community."

He added: "Women are discriminated against because there are very few community services for them."

Justice secretary Kenny MacAskill has announced plans to change that, promising nearly 1 million for new alternatives to custody for women.

Yesterday, Mr MacAskill said: "There are quite simply more women in Cornton Vale than there should be."

Labour, however, said it was still waiting for robust community sentences for women.

Tory justice spokesman Bill Aitken said: "For Kenny MacAskill to suggest that the answer to overcrowding is simply to avoid sending people to prison is the counsel of despair. There is nobody in jail who does not require to be there."

Liberal Democrat justice spokesman Robert Brown said conditions at Cornton Vale must be "improved urgently".

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