A new approach to women offenders in Scotland

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Where were we?

Scotland has come a long way in its approach to women offenders in recent years. For example, until the mid 2000s, women found guilty of failure to pay fines in respect of non payment of television licences could potentially have faced the prospect of a custodial sentence to be served alongside women who had committed far more serious crimes. In Scotland, this is no longer the case as such offences are more likely to be dealt with by way of a fixed penalty issued by the procurator fiscal.

Successive governments in Scotland have recognised that many women offenders are vulnerable with complex needs, and have sought to change the way in which the criminal justice system deals with them.

The 2012 Commission

The 2012 Commission for Women Offenders Report (the Angiolini Commission) prompted a change in the way Scotland handles women offenders. The report found that the only exclusively female prison in Scotland, HMP Cornton Vale, was not “fit for purpose”. Cornton Vale could house approximately 300 women. However, this number was often exceeded and, as a consequence, women were not getting the services and support they needed, and rehabilitation opportunities were not satisfactory.

The Commission stated that a significant number of women who were sent to prison for short periods reoffended after release. The Commission highlighted the importance of addressing this problem rather than continuing to lock women away for low level crimes.

The Commission also pointed out that women offenders tend to have very complex issues and needs with many having experienced domestic abuse, mental health problems, and drug and alcohol addictions – most of which are not treated during incarceration.

The Commission did not completely condemn the use of prison for female offenders recognising that it is necessary for serious offenders.  However, the Commission also highlighted the need for prisons to try and rehabilitate female offenders.

The impact of short-term imprisonment

Statistics from 2015-16 show that 71% of women who were convicted of crimes of dishonesty were convicted for shoplifting, an offence which tends to attract a short term custodial sentence. Often, financial hardship was behind the offending. One third of women admitted to being drunk at the time of their offence and 39% said they had ten or more drinks on a typical day.

As Michael Matheson MSP, (then) Cabinet Secretary for Justice, said in September 2015:

 “Short-term imprisonment disrupts families and communities, and adversely affects employment opportunities and stable housing – the very things that evidence shows support desistence from offending. That is clearly not a good use of public resources, and it is a waste of human potential.”

 Figures from the Scottish Prison Service survey in 2015 show that one in ten women in prison had been on remand ten or more times, and more than half had been on remand at least once. This indicates a high level of repeat offending.


The new approach

In 2015, proposals were made for a new £75 million women’s prison, with the same capacity as HMP Cornton Vale, to be built in Inverclyde. However, after wide consultation, the then Justice Secretary, Michael Matheson, rejected this proposal and opted for a different approach:

“Short sentences do nothing to stop reoffending in our communities and only result in offenders going in and out of prison time and time again and reoffending upon release. In my view, we need to act on the evidence, be braver in our approach and take the bold action needed to tackle these ineffective sentences”.

Instead of the new prison in Inverclyde, the Justice Secretary decided to build a smaller prison on the site of HMP Cornton Vale with the capacity for only 80 women. This work is scheduled to begin in winter 2018 with the prison to be operational by 2020. In addition to the new prison, five community custodial units will be built around the country. Each unit will be able to house 20 women and will focus on addressing the underlying issues which women offenders face.

The Scottish Prison Service has announced that the first two custodial units will be built in Glasgow and Dundee, and will be operational in 2020. The approach taken to women offenders will be more personal, intensive and relevant to the needs of each individual. The location of the units is also important, in order to ensure that women can maintain contact with their families while they are incarcerated.


Impression of what the custodial units will look like

The BBC reported that women in Cornton Vale supported the plans and thought that they would be effective in dealing with their problems and reducing offending.

Will the new approach work?

 Former Lord Advocate and Chair of the Commission on Women Offenders, Dame Elish Angiolini, recognised the cycle that women offenders could fall into. She said that women needed skills to get out of that cycle. Opening a one-stop shop in Wishaw which provides services for women in the community Dame Elish said –

 “There are lots of women coming out of prison and slipping straight back into reoffending. People who are in that cycle have had to deal with domestic violence and turn to drugs or alcohol but they don’t want that lifestyle for their kids. They need to have the skills to get out of it and centres like this will allow them to do that”.

However, some commentators have expressed concerns about this approach.

Professor Cyrus Tata from the University of Strathclyde has stated that the plans are bold but they may simply make prison a more attractive place to send people.

A similar scheme was introduced in Canada in the late 80s, after a task force recommended closing the country’s large prison for women, and establishing small regional facilities for women offenders.

However, following the introduction of regional facilities the number of female prisoners more than trebled, from 203 in 1989 to 676 in 2014-15.

Speaking in 2016, Kim Pate, then executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, said:

“It was cast as one of the best reform initiatives internationally.

They were talked about as being cottage-style, community-integrated, not having fences and staffing being really about providing support and therapeutic interventions.

Unfortunately, now, 26 years on, it’s been not a dismal failure but pretty darn close and we have now more than three times the number of women in prison”.

The issue of women offenders is firmly on the agenda in Scotland and it will be interesting to see how the new approach develops.


Ellie Ainslie, SPICe intern