Women Offenders

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 3:16 pm on 13th April 2005.

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Photo of Jeremy Purvis Jeremy Purvis Liberal Democrat 3:16 pm, 13th April 2005

I begin by endorsing Colin Fox's comments on the Justice 1 Committee's interesting comparative study. I hope that it will be the source of further debate in the chamber.

This debate is important and I am glad to speak on behalf of the Liberal Democrats. The average daily prison population in Scotland in 2003 was 6,524. Of that total, 297 were female—that is 5 per cent—and 577 were young offenders. In 1990, there were 137 women prisoners in Scotland. The average daily female prison population increased from 277 in 2002 to 297 in 2003, a rise of 7 per cent. Regrettably, that trend has continued, and the figure last week was 312.

Women make up a small percentage of the prison population, and the proportion becomes even more stark when we consider the gender balance of the population as a whole. This afternoon, it is right that we have heard about Cornton Vale. However, the Executive's motion rightly considers that institution in the wider context.

It is worth quoting in full two paragraphs of Her Majesty's prisons inspectorate for Scotland's report of February 2004. Paragraph 2.1 begins by quoting Anne Owers, the chief inspector of prisons for England and Wales:

"'It is quite clear that there are people in prison who don't need to be there and who are being made worse by being in prison and who could benefit from other provisions outside prison.'"

The paragraph continues:

"Issues of mental health are important in every prison in Scotland: but they are particularly noticeable at Cornton Vale. Eighty per cent of prisoners in Cornton Vale have a history of mental illness. Medical records confirm the impressions formed during even a short inspection, that some of these women are very disturbed indeed."

Paragraph 2.2 says:

"The statistics make grim reading. Over 90% of admissions have addiction problems: in one period of assessment the figure was 100%. Over 60% have a history of being abused. This is not a cross-section of society: these are very damaged women. What will prison do for them? It would be impossible to visit Cornton Vale and not to agree with Anne Owers."

Those paragraphs raise the two principal issues that I want to address. The first concerns the institutions and structures in Scotland to accommodate women offenders; the second is the need for a different approach.

It is worth remembering the conclusions of the 1996 inspectorate report—and it was Mr Stevenson who highlighted some past issues from Cornton Vale. The 2001 report recalled the situation in 1996 when it said, in paragraph 1.2, that in 1996

"the prison was found to have been seriously affected by the growing number of drug damaged and drug abusing women. This was especially the case in the Health Centre and remand hall, where there had been a spate of tragic suicides. Some basic conditions and opportunities were lacking and in addition there were some concerns about security."

The paragraph continues:

"Education facilities were poor and there were no structured offending behaviour programmes or pre-release arrangements. The combination of a range of difficulties had become overwhelming, to the extent that management and staff were described as 'struggling to meet the daily requirements of the prisoners'. At that unhappy time the overall conclusion was that the establishment was fulfilling its basic requirements for custody, but little else."

The population in Cornton Vale has, thankfully, benefited from improvements that the inspectorate's 2004 report indicates are "impressive".

It is worth recognising that there have been improvements in the estate within Scotland and also that the approach has become more responsive to the needs of the prison population. I visited another prison this week—Saughton. I was impressed by the staff and saw the new building, which will allow prisoners to transfer from a 1919 Benthamite block to one fit for today's purpose. Investment in Cornton Vale has also been effective. However, even with the improvement in facilities, what has not changed in recent years has been the condition of the women who arrive at the prison gates. The population of Cornton Vale, and women prisoners throughout Scotland, do not suffer only from substance abuse: they are characterised by social exclusion, poverty and lack of opportunity.