More women jailed: but should they really be there?

THE soaring number of women being locked up in prison was branded Scotland's "national shame" last night, as campaigners called for a change in attitudes towards the use of jail for vulnerable females.

Ten years ago, Henry McLeish, then the Scottish home affairs minister, pledged to reduce the number of inmates at Cornton Vale, Scotland's only women's prison, by half.

Instead, the figure has more than doubled – a fact that has triggered a national debate not just on female prisoners but about the future of the whole penal system.

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In 1998, there were about 180 women locked up at Cornton Vale. Yesterday, there were 393.

Clive Fairweather, then the chief inspector of prisons, called a decade ago for urgent action to tackle the problem of mental illness that had caused a spate of suicides at the jail.

Last night, he said the jail had become "a victim of its own success", as it was offering a better way out for the country's most vulnerable women than inadequate and insufficient support services in the community.

Meanwhile, Kenny MacAskill, the justice secretary, branded the escalating female prison population "shameful", while experts lined up to call for more treatment services and better community punishments.

They said that would mean many women – who, they claim, pose no danger to others – would not have to be locked up, in some cases resulting in their children being taken into care.

The Scotsman can reveal that more than one-third of prisoners at Cornton Vale have been locked up for committing lesser offences, including defaulting on fines and resisting arrest.

However, a significant number have committed more serious crimes, including assault, while a small percentage have carried out, or been accused of, the most serious offences, including murder and attempted murder.

One campaigner for penal reform claimed the doors of Cornton Vale could be "thrown open" and nobody would be placed in danger.

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John Scott, the director of prison reform group the Howard League, said: "The bottom line is anyone with mental-health or addiction issues should be treated in a sensible, humane way. At the moment, we don't operate like that, either in relation to women offenders or men and young offenders."

The focus has been on women in prison because of the unusually high prevalence of serious personal problems that have been blamed for their lives going off the rails.

A recent study showed that four in five of them are mentally ill, with half self-harming common, while 98 per cent have addiction problems and 70 per cent have been abuse victims.

Mr Scott said: "Women offenders have a higher concentration of these problems, but it is probably because of the fact there were so many suicides in the past and the fact they are a minority group that so much attention has been placed on them."

He insisted: "You could probably throw open the doors of Cornton Vale without people in Scotland being put in any danger."

However, others have questioned why women offenders should be treated differently from men who commit crime – and argue that prison is the right place for them.

Yesterday, Mr MacAskill visited Cornton Vale and said the problems there reflected fundamental issues across the whole prison system, with too many non-dangerous offenders being locked up.

But Bill Aitken, MSP, the Scottish Conservatives' justice spokesman, said: "I, too, visited recently but found little evidence of women being there who could have been dealt with in the community. Certainly, mental health is an issue, but some of these women would have been a danger to themselves, never mind the public, were they not in custody."

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Mr Fairweather wrote a damning report on Cornton Vale in 1998, calling for the number of women held there to be halved.

Mr McLeish, then in charge of the Scottish justice system, said the findings were a "watershed", adding: "We now have a very clear agenda for action." He went on: "We can learn, and we are determined to do that."

Meanwhile, Mr McLeish has been given a second chance to act, having been appointed chairman of the prisons commission, which was set up by the Scottish Government to review penal policy and practice.

Mr Fairweather said last night that a combination of escalating drink and drug abuse, and a failure to provide decent treatment and support facilities in the community, had caused the number of women in prison to spiral out of control.

"It's a disgrace, a shame against the nation, that only ten years ago all parties concerned were determined to see the number of women prisoners halved, when it has, in fact, doubled.

"When I was inspector, the voices inside were mainly from Glasgow, with a few from Edinburgh. This reflected where the main drugs problems were. But now you hear voices from all across the Scotland, as the problem of drug abuse among women has spread like a stain.

"But it also reflects the growing problem of alcohol abuse – and the violence that is connected to that.

"There is whole range of women in there who are not a danger to society – but some are."

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He went on: "In response to the suicides, action was taken to improve mental-health services within the jail.

"It has now, in a sense, become the victim of its own success. Sheriffs are sending people there in their best interests, because it's seen as the best place to sort them out."

Bernadette Monaghan, the chief executive of Apex Scotland – an organisation set up to help offenders into employment – said women in Cornton Vale had "fallen through the net".

She said: "Cornton Vale is not the place it was ten years ago, but women going into prison have got all the same issues. Sheriffs might well be responding appropriately to their behaviour, but nobody is addressing their underlying problems and issues.

"It's left for the prison service to do that, but they're not best-placed to do that."

She called for better community-service orders so women could be punished and have their problems addressed at the same time, without ending up in prison.

But Dr Andrew McLellan, Scotland's current chief inspector of prisons, cautioned against being "sentimental".

He said: "A growing number of women prisoners have been convicted of crimes of violence.

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"About 20 per cent of the prisoners in Cornton Vale are serving long sentences: they should certainly be in prison.

"For the rest, we need to recognise how much their imprisonment injures their families, and how little good it does to the women themselves."

There is no escape from boredom and a sense of hopelessness

THE anti-ligature room is a stark sight. Stripped of even the spartan comforts one might expect to find in a prison cell, the room contains just the barest of essentials – a sleeping mat, a blanket and pillow, a toilet without a seat.

This is where the most vulnerable inmates at Cornton Vale are imprisoned, denied access to objects of self-harm or worse.

A visit to Cornton Vale removes any suspicions that a women's prison is one step removed from a holiday camp.

The original 1970s accommodation blocks, while not being dilapidated or particularly dirty, are claustrophobic and unwelcoming, filled with a palpable atmosphere of boredom and resignation.

The place reeks of cigarette smoke – the blocks are considered habitation areas and are therefore exempt from the smoking ban.

Music blares out from the cells, a deafening mixture of hip hop and techno, over which inmates laughter can be heard.

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Looking inside the cells, the first thing that strikes you is exactly how small they are: barely two metres wide, the space is curtailed sharply by the presence of a bunk bed.

In one room, three women, possibly in their teens or twenties, sit impassively in haze of cigarette smoke, chatting inaudibly below the music.

One of them asks who has come to visit the prison and when told that it is the criminal justice minister, Kenny MacAskill, she looks unimpressed, commenting that she would like to know why remand prisoners are being mixed with convicted criminals.

The inmates look ill, sallow and dull-skinned, their appearance betraying other problems. Some have mouths filled with black, rotting teeth, a sure sign of drug use, while others have physical scars, signs of mental illness.

In the remand section, a clean modern hall which, if it was not for the heavy cell doors could be mistaken for an office, those who are awaiting trial talk and laugh like any other group of young women.

Most look like old hands, unconcerned by their surroundings. Other frighteningly young girls wander around, petrified at where they have ended up.

One teenage girl is dressed in a yellow T-shirt revealing arms covered with self-harming scars. Such is the extent of her injuries that it is almost impossible to discern the normal texture of her skin.

One woman says: "There's three of us to a cell. At night you wake up because it's boiling hot and your sheets are sticking to you. It's bloody terrible," she adds, before turning and marching off.