Women Offenders

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 4:16 pm on 13th April 2005.

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Photo of Stewart Maxwell Stewart Maxwell Scottish National Party 4:16 pm, 13th April 2005

I welcome the fact that the Executive motion acknowledges the problem of the continuing growth in the female prison population in Scotland, which, over a number of years, has risen from 137 to 312, which the minister said was the figure last week.

Many female prisoners have serious drug or alcohol problems and we must confront the reality of that fact. As many others have said, 90 per cent of women admitted to Cornton Vale have addiction problems, 80 per cent have a history of mental health problems and more than 60 per cent have a record of being abused.

Half the women in Cornton Vale each year are on remand and yet the majority do not go on to receive a custodial sentence. Elaine Smith made that point earlier, which I thought was valid because the statistic is concerning. We have to ask ourselves why so many women are on remand in prison and yet do not receive custodial sentences. If the offences that they commit are so trivial that they do not merit a custodial sentence, why are they on remand in the first place? We need to get to the crux of that issue. In addition, most women in Cornton Vale are serving very short sentences and about half appear to have been sent there for fine defaulting.

Given that 80 per cent of the women there have a history of mental health problems, we have to ask ourselves why, for example, only 6 per cent completed a course on anxiety problems in 2003-04. There is a large gulf between the number of prisoners with problems and the number of prisoners who attend courses designed to help them overcome those problems.

Figures show that more than 90 per cent of women in Cornton Vale have addiction problems and yet in 2003-04 only 12.5 per cent of them completed a 21-hour drug awareness course and only 9 per cent completed a course entitled, "Guide to Sensible Drinking". Audit Scotland reported that there are courses on drugs relapse prevention, alcohol awareness, advanced drug awareness and health choices. Not a single woman completed any of those courses at Cornton Vale in 2003-04. That makes me wonder whether they really are available to the prisoners, rather than just being available on paper. Were they just not available for the vast majority of women who registered an addiction problem but did not go on the courses that seemed designed for them? Why are the courses listed and yet no women are going on them, given that most of the women who enter the prison system register as having addiction problems? Was there a resource issue? That is why the amendment in the name of Stewart Stevenson is particularly appropriate, and I had hoped that the Executive would support it. It seems to me that the courses that we offer must be taken up by women in prisons if we are to begin to wean them off drugs and alcohol and address some of the anger management problems that they face.

Women are held not only in Cornton Vale; a number of women prisoners in the west of Scotland are held at the jail in Greenock. Last year, other members of the justice committees and I visited Greenock and spoke to many of the women who were held there at the time. Such women will be leaving Greenock soon. In August, they will be heading back to Cornton Vale, where work has been completed on its extension.

Stewart Stevenson raised the problem of holding women in prisons that are not specialist centres for women prisoners. Given that, one would have thought that women prisoners—whose number has averaged around 70 since the move to Greenock in November 2002—would welcome the move back to Cornton Vale, but it seems that they do not want to go back to Cornton Vale. From my personal experience of that visit, I know that many women prisoners have expressed a preference to stay in Greenock rather than return to Cornton Vale. A recent article in the local newspaper included a quote from a woman prisoner, who said:

"Greenock is much better than Cornton Vale. If you want something here, the staff try to help you."

Another woman prisoner said:

"I find here very good because staff will hear you out, even if nothing comes of it. Cornton Vale hands you a form for a complaint."

Those comments suggest that, although there can be no argument about whether Cornton Vale jail has improved, it still has problems.

Like the women in Cornton Vale, most of the women in Greenock prison are in custody for a variety of mostly low-level offences. They are much more likely than men to have been imprisoned for low-level offences. In a recent interview, the governor of Greenock prison said:

"Female prisoners are different because they come into prison but still have to be the parent and family provider. When you come into prison as a single parent, your children go into care and you have to maintain a relationship with social workers and schools through the prison walls. ...When the women meet their kids and partners, it's very tearful and difficult. Kids are often reluctant to leave the room. Cornton Vale works on a different agenda. It would seem the staff relationship is better here."

In that interview, Governor McGill also said:

"There's 66 females in right now and none of them poses a threat to the community; none that you could not put a tag on and let them out tomorrow."

If the women prisoners pose no threat to society, why are they in prison in the first place? The Executive has a responsibility to ensure that we imprison only those women who pose a threat to society, especially when imprisonment might involve taking away the only parent that a child has. Where women are imprisoned, the Executive must make available the necessary resources to ensure that proper treatment is available to enable them to avoid re-entering the prison system. That means that we must ensure that the courses that are listed are available to all prisoners, including female prisoners.

I urge the Executive to give serious consideration to alternatives to custody for many women offenders and to make available the necessary funding to ensure that those are put in place.