Women Offenders

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 4:09 pm on 13th April 2005.

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Photo of Mary Mulligan Mary Mulligan Labour 4:09 pm, 13th April 2005

Listening to members has been interesting. There are similar concerns, and the actions that have been taken so far to allow women to stay out of prison have been supported, which should give us hope that we will not wait another 35 years before we see progress, which Colin Fox suggested that we would have to do.

I acknowledge the genuine puzzlement of many members about why so many women end up in our prisons. As has been said, most women are minor offenders—such offences as theft, fine default and prostitution have been mentioned. Nevertheless, I believe that women can do anything that men can do, which unfortunately means that a woman could be violent or commit murder. For such women, prison is the right place; however, they make up only a small number of women prisoners, not the majority about whom we have been talking today.

The second annual report of the inter-agency forum on women's offending, which was published in January 2001, considered the patterns of women's offending. I will highlight two specific areas that it addressed, the first of which is prostitution. The IAF noted that different police policies could affect whether a woman is arrested for prostitution, and it cited Edinburgh and Glasgow as clear examples of cities with different policies. It was also shown that women are disproportionately penalised for prostitution-related offences and that their criminalisation seems to lead them into a spiral of reoffending and fine default, with prison often being the end result.

The other issue that the IAF highlighted, which I want to note, is fine default. The 2001 report stated that more than half of all females who were sentenced to prison were there for fine default. We have heard that again this afternoon. More recently, the Justice 1 Committee's report on alternatives to custody stated that the committee had heard evidence that

"almost half the women are in custody for fine default with an average sentence of nine days and their average outstanding fine is £214".

No one could say that it is right to have so many women in prison for fine default; however, as we have seen, in the three years since then, little progress has been made. Why is progress so slow?

There are alternatives to custody, to which I will return. Before I do that, I will comment on the women who find themselves in the prison population. In a previous life, I was a member of the Justice 2 Committee, and we visited Cornton Vale prison as part of an inquiry into women and the criminal justice system. No one who has visited Cornton Vale can be unaware of the poor physical and, often, mental health of the women. We have heard about that from governors, prison officers and prison visitors, and we have heard about it again today. A recent presentation to the Justice 1 Committee by the Church of Scotland reinforced the reasons why people have concerns about the health of women in the prison system. One snapshot of the prison shows them clearly. More than half the women have an addiction; 80 per cent have experienced some form of abuse; a third have been psychiatric out-patients; a fifth have been admitted to psychiatric hospitals; and many have, at some time, self-harmed.

I have no reason to believe that those figures are unusual. Although I am aware that the Scottish Executive is investing in prison modernisation and in improving conditions in the prisons, I would like to hear from the minister that such work will include improving health care, especially in our women's prisons. That is not meant as a criticism of the health care that I saw at Cornton Vale; if anything, it is to all our shame that the care that women receive at Cornton Vale is often better than the care that they have received in the community. I have even heard it said that custodial sentences are given and might not be unwelcome because prison is a safer environment for some women.