'They will not look like prisons': how community custodial units for women in Scotland will operate

Written by Alan Robertson on 5 February 2016 in Feature

As Justice Secretary Michael Matheson prepares to go before parliamentary committee, Holyrood shares exclusive insight on new community-based custodial units planned for women offenders  

“Scotland puts not just too many people in prison but far too many women in prison and I think that to date the models around imprisonment and justice have not been designed for women,” HMP Cornton Vale governor Rhona Hotchkiss told an audience in Glasgow last night. “Women have been a bolt-on to the system that has been designed for men.”

It has been almost eight months since Justice Secretary Michael Matheson announced plans to take a “new approach to how we deal with female offenders”. In short, a new women’s prison designed to house almost a quarter of the current capacity of Scotland’s only national facility – Cornton Vale – would be built, accompanied by five “community-based custodial units” each able to hold up to 20 women.

Since then, detail on this new set-up has been sparse. However, as Mathson prepares to appear before Holyrood’s justice committee next week to discuss progress over the last 12 months in implementing the Commission on Women Offenders’ recommendations, Hotchkiss the Scottish Prison Service operational lead for the development of the women’s custodial estate – has shed some light on what she described as a “departure from the norm” will actually look like.

“Really importantly, because these units will be in the community, they have to have minimal visible security,” she told a Scottish Association for the Study of Offending meeting in Glasgow last night. “So they won’t have high walls, they won’t have barbed wire, they won’t have bars on the window, they will not look like prisons.”

Women will be held in “optimum security conditions for their individual needs, risks and strengths” with the majority of women in community-based custodial units serving short-term sentences.

“It is our hope that after a short period of assessment when women come into community custody units, they will be going out; they will be going out to access health services, they will be going to access social work services, they will be going out to access work placements, they might be going home for a visit, they will be using leisure facilities and so on in the community,” said Hotchkiss. “Many of these will be relatively low risk women still on the shorter end of the sentence scale who will be assessed for all of that.”

A model design for the five community custody units planned is almost complete and is likely to be released within the next few weeks to get feedback from people across the justice sector, including individuals who have spent time in prison. “Basically what it will look like is a communal space with space for visiting experts and workers and so on, a nice visiting type area, and then the residential facilities which are as much like small flats as we can make them,” said Hotchkiss.

“Each one will have an accessible area for women with mobility issues and each one will have a mother and child area as well because we fully expect that children will be able to come and visit [and] they will be able to come and stay overnight, we are serious about people rebuilding links with their families.

“They’ll all be in small flatted units, they’ll all be cooking for themselves, they’ll be doing their own cleaning, their own washing, able to wander about, confined only within the perimeter of the building and only at the times that are appropriate to them.”

Current Scottish Prison Service thinking is that it will be cheaper to build most if not all of the community units from scratch rather than convert existing buildings. “That gives us the opportunity to as much as possible make these buildings like their surroundings,” said the Cornton Vale governor. Five units “seems to be about the right number just now”, she added, though intimated a desire to see more introduced as time goes on if the model proves to be successful.

They will be “built for women who have suffered trauma” and for “building family contact”, Hotchkiss told audience members. Just over half of women who go in to Cornton Vale have children and of those, less than a third have custody of their children by the time they arrive.

Units are likely to feature a mixture of prison staff, healthcare and social work figures as well as individuals from the third sector. “It is my belief that what we need for these women are facilities that offer 24 hour support, supervision, motivation and friendship because that is what an awful lot of these women lack in their lives,” she said.

Of course, the process of setting these up is unlikely to be all plain sailing. For one, European prison rules dictate that young people under the age of 18 should not be detained in the same accommodation as adults. As such, the prison service is still ironing out how this new set-up will work if young women are given a custodial sentence. 

Secondly, and perhaps more immediate, is a fear that some local communities may be averse to having a unit on their doorstep. The process of site selection for the five units is about to get underway. Holyrood understands that work has been undertaken to identify the postcodes that women imprisoned in Scotland are most likely to come from. Letters will then be sent out to local authorities either telling them their area has insufficient numbers for such a set-up or that it is being considered and therefore support would be welcome.

“There was a huge coalition of good will around the announcement to not proceed with Inverclyde,” said Hotchkiss. “Almost every politician in the Scottish Parliament thought that was the right thing to do and there was tremendous support from everyone involved with justice.

"And when we move to open these community units we need them all to stand up and to stand beside us and say, 'this is the right thing to do'. We need all the community leaders, all the people that spoke out about expansion of the women’s custodial estate to actually stand up for us and say this is the right way to go.”

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