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Symbolism behind Inverclyde's size

Symbolism behind Inverclyde's size

The size of Inverclyde prison – should it ever be built – is important. Not, though, because of the terminology – in particular, talk of a ‘super-prison’ – running through this debate over whether the Scottish Prison Service should press ahead with plans for a new female establishment in Inverclyde with a capacity of 300. Rather, because it reflects the lack of progress in terms of numbers entering custody, a problem that is not one for the SPS alone.   

First of all, Inverclyde is not a ‘super-prison’. Cornton Vale – the establishment that it would replace – currently has 309 available contracted places, more or less the same as what is being discussed, even if we take into account Inverclyde will be capable of expanding to a maximum of 350 if necessary. Scotland currently has 15 prisons – if we include the Open Estate at Castle Huntly – with space to hold 8,159 offenders. If built to the current specification of 300, Inverclyde will be the 11th largest prison of 15.

Now, of course, Inverclyde would house much more of the overall female population than, say, Barlinnie – Scotland’s largest male prison - would men, despite it being a fraction in pure numbers. Still, with the average female prison population projected to reach anywhere between 510 and 640 by the time Inverclyde is up and running (should it get up and running), the term – which also ignores the fact that Inverclyde will serve a regional population from the west of Scotland, equivalent to Grampian in the north and Edinburgh in the east, and serious long-term offenders as Shotts does for the male estate – isn’t a helpful characterisation. Instead, ‘same size of prison’ despite a decade worth of reviews is the more worrying, albeit less catchy, one.

Whether Inverclyde is the right way to go is an entirely different matter. Dame Elish Angiolini’s report called for Cornton Vale to be replaced with a “smaller specialist prison” for those serving long-term sentences – four years and more – and for those on remand or serving short-term sentences to be held in local prisons. The SPS would suggest that Inverclyde largely fulfils this recommendation if split into its two functions. In truth, having a facility in the north, east and west of the country – whilst better than a single national establishment – hardly constitutes ‘local prisons’. Views here differ, though, with Kate Donegan, lead and executive for the Women Offenders Project set up to design and commission the new prison, suggesting that much smaller units – likely attached to existing male establishments because of the estate they’re working with – lead to competition for scarce prison resources, while others tend to prioritise the need to remain as close to home as possible for the purposes of family contact.

Inverclyde, though, is not the problem here; it is a symptom of a wider failure. A consequence of the fact that – despite crime being at a record low, as ministers are so keen to remind us – our courts still send a number of women to prison whose offences mask a multitude of problems. Seven in ten female offenders used drugs in the 12 months prior to entering prison, according to the latest prisoner survey, while mental health problems are commonplace. We know this. Report after report has told us this. That said, the Angiolini report appeared to stop short of tackling sentencing head on. A Scottish Sentencing Council should be up and running by the end of the year and I’d go so far as to back a suggestion made by one expert that the guidelines it draws up contain a provision declaring women will not be sent to custody for their own rehabilitation.

Credible, sustainable alternatives to custody are required to avoid this, though. I visited Tomorrow’s Women, one of the community justice centres that flowed out of the Angiolini report over six months ago. Its work, as far as I am concerned, is inspirational and the environment a much healthier one than prison. Yet the two-year funding commitment made by the Scottish Government was a paltry sum when set alongside their ambitions. Projects such as this one are the future, though a failure by our politicians not just to acknowledge such but actually act upon it a long time before now may well mean that Inverclyde ends up being the present. 

Read the most recent article written by Alan Robertson - Time for Michael Matheson to live up to his motto of ‘smart on crime’

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