Scotland has the second highest female prison population in northern Europe, and government plans to reform the system could see the country’s only all-female prison, Cornton Vale, replaced with a smaller jail, and the move of some women to five small “community-based custodial units” in different parts of Scotland.
A BBC Scotland documentary titled Women Prisoners: Throw Away the Key?, has heard from critics of a similar approach in Canada that was rolled out 30 years ago when the country’s female prison system was in crisis.
A federal task force came up with a plan to build five low-security prisons in communities across Canada with a focus on therapy and rehabilitation.
But complaints of human rights abuses and overcrowding soon emerged.
Speaking to Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, a prominent human rights lawyer and Labour peer, Kim Pate, executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, said: “When we were embarking on this initiative in Canada ... it was cast as really one of the best reform initiatives internationally.
“Unfortunately, 26 years on it’s been not quite a dismal failure but pretty darn close.”
The documentary reports that prison reformers are sceptical the new prison strategy will impact on the record numbers of women arriving in Scottish prisons.
Lisa Mackenzie of the Howard League Scotland, said: “If you expand capacity without shrinking the capacity of the old estate, what you might find is a swelling. And there is academic evidence to support the fact that if you build it, they will come.”
Presenting the documentary, Baroness Kennedy also interviews Justice Secretary Michael Matheson on his strategy.
He told the programme: “I think the experience in Canada is very interesting. Nobody has actually achieved what we’re trying to achieve with the new community-based approach that we want to take here in Scotland.
“It’s important not to look at this as there being an issue around bricks and mortar. It’s about changing the way in which we actually deal with the offenders while they’re in these establishments.”
He added: “Historically we are overly dependent upon prisons, so absolutely key to trying to deliver this change is to make sure that sentencers are actually using the sentencing provisions which are available to them in the best possible way to achieve better outcomes. So, there’s a balance to be struck here.”