Women Offenders

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 4:22 pm on 13th April 2005.

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Photo of Ms Rosemary Byrne Ms Rosemary Byrne SSP 4:22 pm, 13th April 2005

I welcome today's debate and the consensus that has emerged that we lock up too many women. It is good that we have all come to that realisation, which I hope the minister will take on board. There is no doubt in my mind that many women prisoners simply would not need to be in prison if we had proper drug treatment and rehab in the community. After all, some 90 per cent of women prisoners in Cornton Vale have a drug misuse problem. For every pound spent on rehab, at least £9.50 is saved on criminal justice services, according to the latest figures from the Scottish Drugs Forum.

Postcode treatment is also an issue in prisons. Many areas of Scotland have no prescribing doctor who is willing to prescribe methadone or put prisoners on to maintenance programmes. That is an increasing problem for the young women who go through the revolving door, whereby they enter prison and, on leaving, return to a drug dependency habit that causes them to end up in prison again due to their reoffending and returning to petty crime to feed their habit. Unless we get those services correct in our communities, that situation will continue.

From recent conversations with the agencies in North Ayrshire, I know that the social services and drugs rehabilitation agencies there have a problem with practitioners who are reluctant to act as prescribing doctors to people in prison. I ask the minister to look into the matter to find out what the situation is across Scotland. As long as treatment and support are patchy, we will not be able to cure the problem.

The treatment of women in the system has been appalling. Given the element, to which some members have alluded, of women being treated differently from men, it seems to me that civil rights issues are also involved. It is quite clear that, in Bowhouse prison, because of the high degree of misuse of drugs in the prison, male prisoners were given easier access to a maintenance programme. I think that women are being very much discriminated against and that questions of human rights are raised.

Most of the women who are in jail pose no problem or threat to the public, as the majority of their offences are minor, as Colin Fox and others said.

The largest group of women—90 per cent—who are detained for drug-related offences are those who suffer from drug or alcohol addiction. Some 80 per cent of those women have mental health problems, as has been said already. I want to emphasise the point that I made when I intervened earlier to ask a question about the dual-diagnosis teams. Again, I ask the minister to ensure that that is looked into and that we have effective dual diagnosis in all our health boards. There is no doubt that the issue of drug and alcohol misuse is related to the issue of mental health. We should be treating both those problems in the same way.

Many of the women who are imprisoned are mothers. Most of them have a background of social deprivation and the implications for the children can be stark. Having a mother in prison has a greater effect on a family than having a father in prison because, in many cases, the mother who is imprisoned is a single parent—the only parent in the household. In such situations, arrangements have to be made for the care of any children. The separation of young children from their mothers can have long-term effects, as Elaine Smith outlined. They can have social, emotional and behavioural problems in later life and there is an increased risk that those children will become offenders. More than a quarter of women prisoners have been in care. That is a stark figure. We require a range of alternatives to prison, based on the requirement to provide rehabilitation and community involvement. I welcome the minister's statements on that and look forward to progress in that regard.

We do not want the revolving-door syndrome to continue. I visited Greenock prison recently and spoke to a group of young women from Ayrshire. The story that I got from all of them was that, when they left prison, they came back again within two, four or six weeks as a result of committing the same minor offences related to their drug misuse. They told me that if they had got on to a methadone maintenance programme, they could have stayed in the community. However, they need the correct support, which is why we need community-based rehabilitation facilities, which I have proposed in my member's bill. We need those facilities because people who have been stabilised or who are going through detoxification need support in the community to keep them level. That is crucial and I hope that work will be done on that issue.

I welcome today's announcement of the tower project that will be piloted in Motherwell. I hope that the proposal goes ahead.