Disgraceful, unacceptable, harrowing – Cornton Vale women’s prison is damned again

Cornton Vale women's prison. Picture: TSPL
Cornton Vale women's prison. Picture: TSPL
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SCOTLAND’s chief inspector of prisons has described conditions at the country’s only women’s prison as “unsatisfactory” as he agreed that the jail should be closed within five to six years.

Brigadier Hugh Monro told The Scotsman that he “completely endorsed” the call from former Lord Advocate Dame Elish Angiolini to shut Cornton Vale as he published his third inspection report on the jail in just two-and-a-half years. Mr Monro’s latest report criticised conditions in the jail, which houses 312 prisoners, highlighting “disgracefully poor” cells and a lack of educational opportunities for many inmates.

He launched a strongly worded attack on the “unacceptable” use of punishment cells at Cornton Vale. “This was not only inappropriate use of such cells, but the conditions were disgracefully poor. I saw one prisoner lying on a mattress on a concrete plinth and there was no window to provide ventilation or light,” he wrote.

Mr Monro’s report went on to argue that facilities for family visits were “very poor” and called on the Scottish Prison Service to fund a dedicated visitor centre at the prison.

He did acknowledge that the treatment of prisoners had improved, due to a reduction in the prison population of more than 100, and noted that inmates had better access to toilet facilities since his last inspection.

However, Mr Monro went on to issue a stark warning that if for any “unforeseen reason” the population went up, the situation would deteriorate again.

He also criticised what he said was the “dreadfully bad approach” of forcing inmates to undergo lengthy journeys for short court appearances, as he called for more video links to courts in the prison.

Mr Monro said: “I completely endorse the recommendations of the commission chaired by Elish Angiolini. I can see that Cornton Vale will have to continue for the next five to six years, which is why there’s got to be continued improvements.

“Cornton Vale has made progress since the previous report, but there’s still more to be done and we’re not in an acceptable situation at the prison.

“I very strongly agree with the aspect of the report from Dame Elish Angiolini that the facilities at Cornton Vale are just not good enough. For example, I’ve been calling for a family visitor centre for two-and-a-half years.”

Mr Monro also warned that he would return to inspect the jail if the Scottish prison Service failed to deliver the improvements he demanded in yesterday’s report.

He said: “The improvements we’ve seen so far have largely come about because of a change in the numbers and overcrowding; if for any unforeseen reason the population went up all the issues would come back in.

“I’ll keep a close eye on the situation and if there’s a red light I’ll be back in like a shot.

“In essence Cornton Vale is still in an unsatisfactory position. The facilities for family visits remain very poor indeed, not helped by the lack of a prisoner visitor centre, a facility which would go a long way to improving the situation.

Mr Monro described visiting the jail’s Ross House, which houses prisoners who are kept separate from others because of their “behaviour or state of mind”, as a “harrowing experience.”

Labour MSP Jenny Marra said: “Hugh Monro’s report is clear that female offenders are still not a priority for the highest level of the Scottish Prison Service.”

However, justice secretary Kenny MacAskill said the government would consider the latest report from Mr Monro alongside that from the commission on women offenders, chaired by the former Lord Advocate, which claimed Cornton Vale should be demolished and replaced with a smaller specialist jail for high-risk women offenders.