Sandy Cameron: Support for women leaving jail is vital

Our politicians live in a world of constant change and frenetic activity, of plans and pledges, of task forces and initiatives, of action and gaining momentum.

Women prisoners need help when they are released from jail. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA

If you are not moving forward, however, you are not necessarily in reverse. Sometimes ­ministers deserve credit for things undone, for a lack of action, for pressing the pause button when it might have been easier, but not better, to press start.

Justice secretary Michael Matheson’s decision to ­halt plans for a new ­women’s prison at Greenock looks better with every month. Quietly sliding the blueprints for a new like-for-like facility to replace Cornton Vale in his ­bottom drawer was politically tricky but revealed an ambition to change a system doing too ­little to tackle the criminal behaviour and bad choices of women prisoners or protect communities on their release.

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The governor of Cornton Vale, Rhona Hotchkiss, is now steering plans for around five community-based secure units, holding around 20 prisoners each, and two larger facilities at Aberdeen and ­Cornton Vale, holding 50 and 80 women respectively.

Last week, she revealed some more of the thinking behind the strategy at a conference at ­Stirling University, discussing how best to support ­mothers in custody and their ­children.

Many of those there – including former Lord Advocate, Dame Elish Angiolini – ­noted that the Scottish Prison Service alone cannot be expected to provide the skills, expertise and experience to tackle the complex, challenging work of caring for women in prison while also preparing them for new lives and new ways of ­living when released. ­Children’s charity Aberlour, for example, expertly ­supports staff in Cornton Vale’s Mother and Baby Unit and is just one of the third sector organisations, including Sacro, working with ­prison, health and social services to help ­women quickly gain a foothold ­outside prison.

Mentors from our Shine service literally collect women outside the prison to ensure everything is done to quickly settle them into a ­stable routine. From hard experience, they know those first few hours, days and weeks are crucial for many ­women, unused or unable to cope with ­everyday life, if they are not to fall back into old, chaotic routines and, for too many, another sentence.

Community-based secure units will provide a step-change in how low-risk women prisoners are held in custody and offer clearer opportunities to help them return home better prepared for freedom and with stronger support networks. That will not happen by accident, but by building and bolstering services like Shine with consistent, long-term funding.

This is important, life-changing work. If we are serious about rehabilitation, then it must be planned and supported. Sometimes doing nothing is the best thing to do. When it comes to services capable of turning lives around, curbing reoffending and making communities safer, this is not one of them.

Sandy Cameron is chairman of Sacro.