New national prison to be built for 80 female offenders
A new women’s prison designed to hold almost a quarter of the current capacity of Scotland’s only national facility will be built, the Scottish Government has announced.
Cabinet Secretary for Justice Michael Matheson said the new build, which will be based on the current site at HMP Cornton Vale, will be accompanied by five regional units each able to accommodate up to 20 women.
The decision comes after Matheson earlier this year shelved plans for a new national prison in Inverclyde with a capacity of 300, roughly equivalent to Cornton Vale.
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Howard League Scotland welcomed the Government's recognition that more needs to be done reduce the size of the female prison population, albeit expressed concerns over the timescales involved with the changes.
The five smaller units will be based in areas close to communities of female offenders in order to maintain family contact and allow intensive support to help overcome issues such as alcohol, drugs, mental health problems and domestic abuse trauma.
Matheson vowed to make more use of community-based alternatives to short-term prison sentences and added that more funding will be made available to community-based services.
The Government also intends to consult shortly on proposals to strengthen the presumption against short-term prison sentences amid calls to move beyond the current three months.
“These are progressive proposals, they draw on the best available international evidence of what works, but they are tailored to specific circumstances here in Scotland,” said Matheson.
“I’ve seen various justice policies labelled as ‘soft’ or ‘tough’ in recent years, but I think the time is right to move away from this kind of narrative – what we are doing here is taking a ‘smart’ approach, just as we’ve seen in our strategy for reducing youth offending which has proven so successful.
“What is important is doing the right thing for Scotland and our communities, based firmly on the evidence of what works in reducing reoffending. That is what we are implementing here.
“Simply locking women up in a large facility doesn’t work. We’ve seen the damaging impact that going in and out of prison has for the women, for their families and for their communities.”
Matheson said there was a need for a “new approach” and vowed to work with local partners to test the most effective ways of reducing the use of remand and short-term sentences.
“It is totally unacceptable that Scotland has the second highest female prison population in Northern Europe, doubling between 2002 and 2012,” he added.
“I believe the ambitious vision we are announcing for the future in Scotland offers the best potential to turn around the growth we have seen over the past decade in the female prison population.
“It offers progressive and effective alternatives to custody which are based on evidence and I believe it will further reduce rates of reoffending right across the country.”
The proposals, backed by capital investment of up to £82m, will see the new national facility and community units in place by 2020.
Howard League Scotland said the emphasis must be on preventing women from becoming caught up in the criminal justice system in the first place and added that the time is right to revisit the presumption against sentences of three months or less.
“Decommissioning existing custodial capacity should also be an early aim, with lessons to be learned from the success of work with young offenders and the reduction in numbers at Polmont,” a spokeswoman told Holyrood.
“At present it is unclear what the timescale for decommissioning existing capacity will be. We would be very concerned if this did not take place before the creation of the proposed new prison places at a new facility on the site of Cornton Vale and places at five regional custodial units (each with 20 places).
“The evidence suggests that the creation of new prison capacity can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“If we redouble our efforts and take a ‘whole systems approach’, there is no reason why the success in reducing the number of young people in custody cannot be replicated for women in custody in Scotland.”