National facility leads Scottish strategy on women offenders

Michael Matheson

The Scottish government will build a new women’s prison at Cornton Vale as part of a new strategy on women offenders, Justice Secretary Michael Matheson has announced.

Mr Matheson said that he was putting forward “progressive proposals” that “draw on the best available international evidence of what works, but are tailored to specific circumstances here in Scotland”.

The new national unit will house 80 of Scotland’s most serious women offenders - a step-down from former Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill’s controversial plans to create a 300-inmate facility in the area.

The government will also create five smaller, community-based custodial units, each accommodating up to 20 women across the country.

Scotland currently has the second highest female prison population in northern Europe, doubling between 2002 and 2012.

Mr Matheson said: “I believe that accommodating female offenders, where appropriate, in smaller units, close to their families, with targeted support to address the underlying issues such as alcohol, drugs, mental health or domestic abuse trauma is the way ahead.

“It is also in line with previous expert reports by Dame Elish Angiolini and Henry McLeish in which it is recommended that we should target the use of prison where it can be most effective – in punishing serious crime and protecting the public.”

John Scott QC, convenor of the Howard League for Penal Reform in Scotland, added: “The emphasis must be on preventing women from becoming caught up in the criminal justice system in the first place, diverting them at the point of arrest and prosecution wherever possible, and reducing the use of remand and short term prison sentences.

“There must too be sustainable funding for community-based services and there are lessons to be learned from the success of work with young offenders and the reduction in numbers at Polmont.

“If we redouble our efforts and take a ‘whole systems approach’, there is no reason why the success in reducing the number of young people in custody cannot be replicated for women in custody in Scotland.”

Howard League Scotland welcomed the decision in January not to go ahead with a 300-inmate facility as “another step towards meeting the recommendations in the 2012 report of the Commission on Women Offenders”.

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