Crisis of confidence puts Cornton Vale on suicide watch

PRISON chiefs fear there will be more suicides among inmates at Scotland's only women's prison in the face of collapsing staff morale and rising prisoner numbers.

Insiders say the departure in July of governor Kate Donegan and a medical officer – who were lauded for transforming the fortunes of Cornton Vale – has paved the way for more deaths.

The two were drafted in to the jail amid a crisis of eight suicides by vulnerable women, six of which were in the remand block, between 1995 and 1998.

For three-and-a-half years there was not a single suicide in the prison, but in the four months since they left, the jail has been rocked by another two inmate deaths.

One prison source said: "The atmosphere has changed since Kate was moved on. The new governor has record numbers to contend with. Many of the women are in a desperate state because of drug dependency and emotional problems, often related to separation from their children. The mood is not optimistic.

"It was probably inevitable that suicide should re-emerge and many of the staff in headquarters fear there will be more. They feel helpless to do anything. They can't cure the overcrowding because they don't control policy and they don't want to be accused of causing hysteria by debating it in public. Plus, they can't motivate the politicians because there are few votes in prisoners' welfare."

Other senior sources within the prison system have accused the Scottish Executive of turning its back on key promises to drive down the number of inmates at the jail. One said: "Shortly after Labour came to power in 1997, there was a firm pledge to reduce the prison population generally and the number of women in jail in particular.

"When Henry McLeish was justice minister, he stated publicly more than once that he believed the majority of women in Cornton Vale were damaged and did not need to be in prison. Why then have the numbers gone up under Labour?"

Figures show that the average daily population of female prisoners for the whole of Scotland was 184. But numbers for the year 2000, to be published next this week, are expected to show a marked increase.

On Friday November 16 – two weeks after Frances Carvell was found hanging in the jail – a staggering 260 women were locked up in Cornton Vale alone. That figure exceeds its supposed maximum capacity

by 13%.

Last night, the father of Yvonne Gilmour, a 22-year-old who hanged herself in Cornton Vale prison on Christmas Eve in 1996, called on the government to place vulnerable females into a hospital wing instead of locking them in jail cells.

He said: "The whole place seems to be in chaos and it is down to putting damaged girls into cells, alone, where the depression can set in and knock them over the edge. Vulnerable girls should be put in a hospital setting together so they can keep an eye on each other and talk through problems.

"These two recent deaths have brought it all back to me again and it's upsetting. This time of year for me will never be the same again but more deaths just make it worse."

On 26 October, Frances Carvell, from Glasgow, who was serving life for murder, was found hanging in a bathroom at the jail's Peebles block. She died of her injuries a few days later. Just two days before, Michelle McElvar was found dead 24 hours after being arrested on a warrant for armed robbery. She was found hanging in a cubicle in toilets in the remand block. She was understood to have drug problems.

Kate Donegan's arrival at the jail came at the tail end of the worst period in its history. Soon after, treatment was focused on welfare and chronic drug problems faced by 90% of the inmates were addressed. Her move to Glenochil in July was a promotion, but informed sources say that her leadership and compassion have been sorely missed at Cornton Vale.

A source said: "Stephen Swan has come in and he is a perfectly competent governor, but he does not have his problems to seek. He had been governor at Penninghame and was deputy at Perth, but this job is another challenge altogether. Kate is a class act and not an easy one to follow, especially when conditions are deteriorating."

A spokesman for the Scottish Prison Service said: "There has been a remarkable job done in turning around Cornton Vale. Of course we appreciate that staff morale is low, but that is an issue across the whole of the prison estate and we are doing our best to address that. It's hardly surprising that in this time of major change [with the estates review due in weeks] there is a lot of uncertainty among staff."