Cornton Vale toilet conditions 'wholly unacceptable in the 21st century', warns chief prisons inspector
Cornton Vale, Scotland’s national women’s prison, is “no longer in a state of crisis”, the chief inspector of prisons has said – despite raising concerns over “wholly unacceptable” arrangements that have seen some inmates wait over an hour to use the toilet.
David Strang said the jail near Stirling has made “significant progress” since highly critical reports by his predecessor and former Lord Advocate Dame Elish Angiolini, who labelled it “not fit for purpose” in her 2012 Commission on Women Offenders report.
However, the inability of nearly half the women housed at Cornton Vale to get direct access to toilet facilities at night – leading to “quite extended” waits, in some cases for over an hour – has “continued for far too long”, he added, labelling the system "antiquated".
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According to his latest inspection report of the facility, some prisoners told inspectors that they had been advised by staff to “pee in the sink” when they had been unable to access a toilet quickly enough.
“This is wholly unacceptable in the 21st century,” said Strang. “As a matter of urgency, alternative measures need to be put in place to ensure that prisoners have unrestricted access to toilet facilities.”
The findings point to “Victorian conditions” inside Cornton Vale, according to the Scottish Liberal Democrats. The Scottish Prison Service said the majority of those affected are likely to be moved to Polmont this summer while the current night sanitation system used in certain parts of the prison will be scrapped.
An analysis of prison records conducted by HM Inspectorate of Prisons found prisoners had to wait longer than 10 minutes to get access to the toilet in 266 instances last September alone. In a small number of situations, records showed prisoners had to wait for over an hour.
“We received numerous accounts about the distress and discomfort this caused, in some cases involving women who were pregnant or who had health problems,” said the inspectorate’s report.
“Indeed, prisoners were extremely vocal about this subject and it was by some way, the single strongest criticism that women made about the prison.”
Strang’s report also warned that many prisoners spoken to during their inspection visit between September 28 and October 7 did not have confidence in the prison complaints system and were “afraid to make a complaint for fear of the consequences”.
A “small, but not insignificant, minority of prisoners stated that they had suffered repercussions as a result of raising their complaint,” according to his inspection report.
The inspector found that living conditions within the prison have improved as a result of investment by the SPS as well as a “marked reduction in the overall population”.
There were over 150 fewer women held in Cornton Vale compared to the 2009 inspection in which Brigadier Hugh Monro – Strang’s predecessor – warned the prison was in a “state of crisis”.
Relationships between staff and prisoners were deemed to be “in the main, positive and professional”, while work undertaken with the some of the most vulnerable prisoners is “impressive”, the report added.
Despite this, the inspector underlined the need for “more consistent” mental health nursing provision, also raising concerns that operational needs of the prison frequently caused problems for the delivery of healthcare services.
“What my predecessor found is that overcrowding and really poor conditions meant that being sent to Cornton Vale was counter-productive in terms of wanting proper rehabilitation and helping women get back on their feet,” Strang told Holyrood. “I think that has changed hugely.”
The Scottish Government announced last week that more than half of the women currently housed at Cornton Vale will be moved to HMP Polmont – which holds young offenders – over the summer, ahead of a smaller national prison being built on the same site.
It is expected that the majority of women moved to Polmont will be those affected by the current night sanitation arrangements, which see women buzz a control room in order to use the toilet but which limits the number of inmates allowed access at any one time.
An SPS spokesman confirmed that any women who do not switch prison will be moved into one of two blocks on the Cornton Vale site that either have in-cell sanitation or give inmates keys to their doors to access toilet facilities at night.
“I think it would be clear to anyone who came into Cornton Vale now that this is not a prison in crisis,” governor Rhona Hotchkiss told Holyrood. “There have been tremendous improvements made since those last reports, not least the amount of investment that has gone into improving the fabric of the place. It was encouraging to hear the chief inspector concentrate on that.
“The main criticism is, obviously, the continuation of the night sanitation. Now, no one would think that’s an ideal situation – not myself, not the staff, not anyone. I think what the staff should take from this by means of encouragement is that that is a matter outwith their control, so it is not a criticism of the staff.
“If you go through the report there are lots and lots of areas of really good practice that Cornton Vale is excelling in.”
The prison is “actively monitoring” the complaints system while consideration is also being given to whether further staff training is required, Hotchkiss added. Letters written by the governor have been sent to all women currently held in the prison “reinforcing” what the complaints system is for and encouraging them to use it, she said.
Scottish Liberal Democrats justice spokesperson Alison McInnes accused government ministers of taking a “pick and mix approach to the implementation of the Angiolini report” as she stressed the “sooner this outdated institution is shut for good the better.”
“It is to the SNP’s shame that they have failed to end the Victorian conditions at Cornton Vale,” added McInnes. “The lack of appropriate bedding and description of women being left for up to an hour to go to the toilet at night could have come straight from another era.
“Six years after the first of a series of damning reports on the treatment of women offenders, it is appalling to learn women are still being told to go to the toilet in a sink.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “We understand that facilities at Cornton Vale prison are out-dated. That is why last summer Justice Secretary Michael Matheson unveiled plans for a new approach to dealing with female offenders, with a move towards custody in the community, backed by targeted support to address underlying issues and action to reduce the numbers of women receiving custodial sentences.”
The detail of five planned community-based custodial units across Scotland – each of which will hold up to 20 women – is expected to be consulted on within the next few weeks. “In the interim, we expect the SPS to implement the improvements suggested,” the government spokeswoman added.
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