The true scandal of Cornton Vale lies in the justice system

TODAY'S report into Cornton Vale is a damning indictment of the penal policies of successive generations of Scottish politicians who have, to their shame, hoped that the scandalous neglect of the country's only women's prison would remain out of sight and out of the public mind.

It is to the immense credit of Hugh Monro, Her Majesty's Inspector of Prisons in Scotland, that he has chosen to make Cornton Vale the subject of his first report since taking over his post and that he has exposed the shocking reality of the conditions at the prison.

Consider just some of his findings. Cornton Vale is massively overcrowded with 276 cells to hold around 400 prisoners. The length of time prisoners spend locked in cells has grown since the last inspection in 2006. An electronic unlocking system in some blocks means prisoners wait up to two hours to go to the toilet and some end up using a sink.

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Little wonder then that on finding these and many other problems at the prison, Brigadier Monro concluded that Cornton Vale was in a crisis and the conditions in which the women live were unacceptable.

The reason why this is so is obvious: there are simply too many women behind bars. A large number have been imprisoned for prostitution, shoplifting, persistent antisocial behaviour and multiple failures to pay fines. They commit these crimes to feed a drugs habit. Nine out of ten inmates are estimated to be substance abusers and a quarter are on methadone programmes.

From this it is abundantly clear that the true scandal of Cornton Vale is that many, perhaps most, of these poor, drug-oppressed women should not be in prison at all.

Instead of locking them away somewhere which contributes to a deterioration in their conditions, they should be in rehabilitation centres where they are given intensive help with their drugs problems and not treated like hardened criminals.

The Scottish Prison Service was last night unable to say what it costs to house the women at Cornton Vale, but the cost of alternative form of treatment is one which society should bear, as we are currently continuing to pay for the recidivism this institution breeds.

And what of the response from justice secretary Kenny MacAskill? Grand statement of reforming zeal came there none. His promise of an "action plan" for the prison was as anodyne as it was asinine. This institution does not need another plan, what is required is a complete overhaul of the way the criminal justice system treats women.

The justice secretary has inherited the situation from previous Scottish Government's, making the criticisms of Labour and the Liberal Democrats – once coalition partners – utterly worthless.

But he is now in charge and he must act. This report presents him with the opportunity to be radical. He should take as his text the words of Elizabeth Fry, the great 19th century Quaker prison reformer, who said: "Punishment is not for revenge, but to lessen crime and reform the criminal."