Stepping up

The Angiolini report on Cornton Vale was damning. The Scottish Prison Service has pledged immediate improvements in how women offenders are treated

by Nov 19, 2012 No Comments

In June, Dame Elish Angiolini described Scotland’s only all-women prison, HMP Cornton Vale, as a “miserable place”.

Ever since the former Lord Advocate made her damning assessment, a head of steam has been building up within the Scottish Prison Service to look for a new way to address matters urgently.

Colin McConnell, who took over as SPS chief executive in May, has been quick to make the treatment of women offenders one of his top priorities, no doubt with the report’s words “appalling” and “antediluvian” ringing in his ears.

At a criminal justice conference at HMP Barlinnie in Glasgow this month, he said: “As many here will know, the Cabinet Secretary has accepted my recommendations for delivering the SPS element…flowing from the Angiolini Commission.

“Our focus will primarily be on a new national women’s prison at Inverclyde and providing a new regional facility adjacent to Edinburgh prison. As many of you will also know, I’ve made improving treatment of women in custody the immediate and top priority for the Scottish Prison Service and I’m taking personal responsibility for driving that forward. We have set an ambitious target of delivering on this key objective by 2016. However, in the meantime, we are investing a proportionate but substantial amount of resource in refurbishing Cornton Vale for the medium term.” Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill has accepted 33 of the 37 recommendations of the Commission on Women Offenders report, carried out by Angiolini, a QC. The commission said that the jail, near Stirling, should be replaced with a smaller specialist prison for long-term and high-risk offenders, which will eventually become the facility at Inverclyde.

It said there should also be regional units to hold short-term and remand prisoners, which McConnell alluded to in his 7 November speech at the Promoting Integration conference, organised by community justice group, No Offence.

Such units – at HMP Aberdeen and HMP Inverness – came off comparatively well in the Angiolini report, which described the “positive relationship” between staff and offenders.

McConnell said: “As we develop the new facilities we learn from existing initiatives such as the community integration unit in Aberdeen and Inverness prisons. These are specialist units for female prisoners in which prison staff work closely with offenders to develop supporting relationships, improve family contact and help them to form links with community-based services prior to release.” One of the central problems facing the SPS, however, is overcrowding and the way the criminal justice system often deals with women offenders, with the tendency to lock women up on remand, even though they are not ultimately imprisoned.

The report noted: “The evidence we heard also led us to conclude that the police, prosecution service and judiciary, could each play more significant roles than they do at present in improving outcomes for communities and offenders. Only 30 per cent of women held on remand go on to receive a custodial sentence.

“Existing disposals to divert women from prosecution and remand could be utilised more fully and should also be more women specific.” Conference delegates even expressed concerns themselves that the judiciary in particular isolated itself from other agencies.

Results of an impromptu audience straw poll showed there appeared to be no representation from that sector at the conference, among the audience at least.

Although not specific to women, McConnell also remarked on the sheer number of public and third sector organisations involved in prisoner care, pre and post release. He said: “For everyone not aware of the range of offender-related services currently being delivered across Scotland, as we have heard the sheer number is astounding. Over 1,300 services [are] directly available across custody and the community, covering a broad spectrum including mentoring support, health and addictions, families and relationships, housing, debt management and learning and skills.

“We need to be continually checking and monitoring that what we offer is the right offer so that we can ensure that services are joining up as required and that what we are delivering to the offender meets their individual needs.” In common with McConnell’s line, the Angiolini report also focused on the myriad of public services which set out to help but can often duplicate effort through a lack of supervision.

It said: “We are strongly of the view that there are major shortcomings with the current arrangements for managing women offenders in the community. Despite the many bodies and individuals working in the field, there is a leadership vacuum; no one organisation or individual has overall responsibility for the delivery of criminal justice services in the community. There is also a lack of a shared vision or common goal directed at delivering the best outcomes for women offenders; fragmented and short-term funding; and an absence of any systematic measurement of outcomes or of what programmes are effective in reducing reoffending.” The Angiolini report did acknowledge, however, that there were high-risk women offenders, for whom prison was the right solution in order to protect the public.

But it made the case that society would almost certainly benefit by treating many women offenders in a public health rather than criminal justice context.

It said: “For other women who have been repeatedly convicted of committing lower level offences, their offending is often the result of significant underlying issues, such as drug or alcohol addiction and mental health problems, that could be better addressed in the community. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP)reported in 2007 that 80 per cent of women in Cornton Vale had mental health problems. In another study, 60 per cent of women prisoners said they had been under the influence of drugs at the time of [their] offence.” Kate Donegan, the current governor, emphasised that particular problem at Holyrood’s Justice Committee on 30 October, saying: “There’s still a lot of women suffering from mental health issues and that’s something I’ve already picked up. I’ve contacted the Mental Welfare Commission and also the Scottish Government in relation to some of the women who are really in quite distressing conditions.” The Angiolini report also dwelt on the huge increase in women who are being locked up in Scotland – a population that has doubled in the last 10 years.

To illustrate that fact, the report noted that when it was built in 1975, the prison held less than 100 inmates.

Currently, that capacity is stated as 375 but because of overcrowding, Ratho Hall, HMP Edinburgh and Darroch Hall, HMP Greenock have all been used to house overspill.

Brigadier Hugh Munro, the HM Chief Inspector of Prisons also declared Cornton Vale to be in a “state of crisis” in his 2009 inspection, and said that “little progress” had been made in his follow-up visit last year.

Those failings, including two-hour waits for the toilet, cold meals, lack of activities and a “deep problem” of prisoner lack of purpose, have undoubtedly paved the way for policy change.

But McConnell made it clear to delegates in a Q&A session following his speech that some of the short-term solutions before a new facility is built are also not ideal.

In particular, he said some of the women offenders face being moved into Polmont Young Offenders’ Institution, near Falkirk. He said: “In reviewing how best to make use of the estate, we decided to create the opportunity at Cornton Vale by moving some of the women in custody into Polmont. The consequence of that is that the 16 and 17 year olds in Polmont will have to move out of their current accommodation at Blair House into a new separate piece of the estate there. Now, what we are committing to is two things: firstly, that we recognise the really good services that are being provided in Blair House, at Polmont for 16 and 17 year olds and we have to work hard to make sure that those are not diluted through this process. So what the governor and other support services including criminal justice partners are doing is to make sure in that transition, appropriate services will continue to be delivered for 16 and 17 year olds. We consulted pretty widely with stakeholders in terms of making this move and we’d rather we didn’t have to make it but being clear what the Scottish Prison Service is doing, it’s stepping up, it’s standing up and saying some things just ain’t working well enough and some things, frankly, can’t be allowed to go on. Cornton Vale is a perfect example of that so we’re stepping up; we’ve got to make a difference.”

Kevin O'Sullivan Kevin O'Sullivan

“Kevin has had a varied career in journalism having worked for many of Fleet Street’s finest including the Sun and the Daily Express. He completed his NCTJ in 2004 and began working for his local paper in Chatham, Kent, before moving to a national news agency. Kevin relocated to Edinburgh in 2010 and had stints with Scottish national papers as well as the Aberdeen Evening Express. He joined Holyrood magazine as Social Affairs Correspondent in September 2012 and has already becoming an avid committee watcher at the Scottish Parliament. Kevin has been slow on social media but now accepts Twitter can be used for work after previously thinking it was for moaning about the Olympics closing...

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