Warnings over Scotland’s women’s prison plans

Media captionPrisoners from Cornton Vale tell Helena Kennedy QC what they think of plans to replace the prison with a much smaller facility and five regional units

Experts have questioned whether plans to transform the way Scotland locks up women will lower the prison population.

The closure of Cornton Vale begins this year. It has a capacity of 375 and will be replaced by an 80-bed jail and five regional units holding 20 women each.

Canada closed its large women’s jail in the 1990s and built five regional units but it has had overcrowding issues.

Justice Secretary Michael Matheson told a BBC Scotland investigation Scotland’s plans differed from Canada’s.

Prisoners at Cornton Vale

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Cornton Vale was recommended for demolition after a report in 2012 described Scotland’s only women prison as “not fit for purpose”

He said “robust” community alternatives would need to be in place to divert people away from the custody or from the courts.

Scotland already jails more women than almost anywhere in northern Europe, with the number of female inmates doubling in a decade.

There are concerns that without changes to sentencing policy and alternatives to jail there could be a temptation for sheriffs to think that prison was a more attractive option.

Lady Helena Kennedy QC

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Helena Kennedy QC has authored a BBC programme about women’s treatment in the criminal justice system

A criminal justice system designed for men

The BBC Scotland documentary – Women Prisoners: Throw Away the Key? is presented by leading human rights lawyer Baroness Helena Kennedy.

She said: “One of the great scandals is that we have seen a massive increase in the numbers of women going to prison yet no significant change in the seriousness of women’s offending.

“Women very rarely commit serious crime. It is all low level offending and invariably is as a result of wretched circumstances.”

There are far fewer women in Scottish prisons than male inmates.

And they differ because they are more likely to be jailed for relatively minor offences such as shoplifting.

More women than men are put on remand – kept in prison before their case has been heard in court or before they are sentenced.

Two-thirds of female admissions to Scottish prisons are for remand.

And about 80% of women on remand do not go on to receive a jail sentence, a situation which has been criticised because many remanded women struggle to keep custody of children and retain their tenancies.

About eight out of every 10 women in Scottish prisons are serving six months or less. The latest figures show that 69% of women serving those sentences were reconvicted within two years.

A more radical approach

Justice Secretary Michael Matheson was widely praised last year for scrapping plans to replace Cornton Vale with another large 300-capacity prison for women. He said Scotland had to take a more radical approach to deal with female offending.

Warnings over Scotland’s women’s prison plans

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