Sorry I’m a little late with this blog post! To all my readers, I was in Rome. Apologies! But I have something very interesting to talk about today so hope you enjoy.
With all the things that have happened so far this year, the deaths of many beloved famous people (Alan Rickman, Victoria Wood and David Bowie – just to name a few) and the huge media explosion we have had over Brexit, I wouldn’t be surprised if you haven’t heard that Scotland’s only female prison in set to start closing this summer.
You may suddenly be asking yourself ‘What is going to happen to all the prisoners? Will these dangerous criminals all be released into society?’ The answer is no. The Scottish government have begun a four-year plan to revolutionise and change the way female prisoners are treated.
Currently, Scotland jails more women than almost anywhere else in Northern Europe. There are up to 3000 female admissions into Scottish prisons every year. In February 2016 the current number of female prisoners stood at 412, with 76 of these being imprisoned on remand (this means awaiting trial).
18% of the female prisoners in Scotland are kept in prison awaiting trial – some of them waiting up to a year in prison. Their lives are put on hold awaiting trial, and the vast majority of these never serve a custodial sentence.
Cornton Vale (which houses about half of Scottish female prisoners) was nicknamed the ‘vale of death’ after 11 prisoners committed suicide between 1995 and 2002.
According to www.womeninprison.org 46% of female offenders have suffered domestic abuse, 53% have experienced emotional, physical and sexual abuse during childhood and 31% spent tie in care as a child.
Furthermore, 81% of female offenders are serving time for a non-violent crime. In 2013, theft and handling accounted for 40% of all female offenders’ crime.
It’s been estimated that more than 17,240 children were separated from their mother due to imprisonment in 2010.
And finally, the rate of recidivism is 45%, within one year for female prisoners.
I hope these figures shock you and show you why it is so important that the prison system needs to be re-envisioned. So how is this going to work?
This summer, more than half of inmates at HMP Cornton Vale (in Stirling) will be relocated to HMP Polmont, near Falkirk. The government also plans to build a much smaller facility, which will house 80 of the country’s most serious female offenders (construction will begin mid 2018).
But the most dramatic change, is the plan to move female prisoners into the community. After a short period of assessment, the women will be out and about within the community in the daytime (volunteering or working, or accessing education). Five small prisons – called community based custodial units – will be set up across Scotland’s communities. This hope to base women closer to their families and to provide additional support (that they would not receive in prison) for those with mental health issues, or those with drug and alcohol addictions. Additionally, the children of the offenders will be able to stay over at the new units. The new reform plans to house 180 of the female prisoners in Scotland, with the hope to help stop the amount of female offenders being given a custodial sentence, or being held on remand awaiting trial.
While these reforms are welcomed. The biggest issue that must be addressed is how many women are being sent to prison within Scotland. There is a worry that buy building these new facilities, the amount of offenders being sentenced will swell.
‘If you build it, they will come’.
Almost thirty years ago Canada reformed their prison service, creating five secure units with the hope to have prisoners working within the community and to lower the amount of offenders sent to prison. In fact, the amount of people being sentenced increased. It is thought that judges and lawyers assumed that there were more programs within these new facilities, when in fact there were less programs and this lead to massive overcrowding.
Canada’s reform is now considered a ‘dismal failure’.
Prison reformists worry that it is not the Scottish prison service that need to be changed, but the judiciary process. Judges feel that they have no other option but to sentence women to remand in prison, or a custodial sentence. We must search for a reform that instead supports women within the community, that listens to women, finds the root of why they are offending, and gives them the support they need to stop them committing crime.
I’m not saying this will work for all offenders, but there is a fundamental need to provide more support for all offenders and their families in order to reduce the rate of recidivism, to reduce the amount of children losing a parent to imprisonment and to provide a better and healthier judicial system overall.
I purposefully haven’t told you about any way that we can do this because I don’t believe there is any one way in which we can help offenders and families of offenders. We need to remember that each offender will have different needs, as a prisoner, and as a individual.
If you are interested in volunteering within prisons, donating, or helping families of prisoners, please look at the link below. Spurgeons – Invisible walls is a great charity that I have had the pleasure to work for:
If you’re interested in learning more about this, and ways of supporting female offenders, this iplayer video was extreamly interesting (and only 30 mins long):
Helena Kennedy – she has some great views on our right to an education – whether we are a prisoner or not:
Facts about women in prison:
Here are some interesting articles about the Scottish prison reform: