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Now is the time for action rather than words on issue of women offenders

Now is the time for action rather than words on issue of women offenders

Coming almost three years after the publication of the report of the Commission on Women Offenders Michael Matheson’s decision to halt plans for a women’s prison in Inverclyde and instead to pursue smaller regional and community based custodial facilities was somewhat belated but also extremely welcome as it offered a more progressive approach and created an opportunity to redefine and reimagine custody (for women offenders at least) rather than simply creating space within local prisons as recommended by Angiolini.

However, while Michael Matheson has spoken about the need to transform services for women, my sense is that the hive of consultation and discussion of the past few months has been too narrowly focussed on buildings and numbers or on the opportunities to take women at least out of custody if not out of the criminal justice system altogether.

If we as a sector and as a country take that transformative aspiration seriously then we need to look in much greater depth at what services for women should look like and who is best to provide them. As well as learning lessons internationally in a justice context there are lessons to be learned from other areas of social care practice within Scotland.


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In a policy context we talk about supporting desistance from offending and recovery from substance misuse or poor mental health. As an organisation we talk about ‘supporting adults with complex needs including mental health, substance misuse and involvement with the criminal justice system’.

The reality is that we support people. Being person-centred isn’t just a catchphrase it’s a culture and an approach which shapes how we support people - it allows an individual to recognise their own strengths, to set and achieve their own goals in life and to weave a supportive, social network around themselves. It allows them to be in control while knowing that support is there for them.

It requires organisations which are able to be flexible and responsive to an individual, able to change and adapt the level, the nature and the delivery of support to meet their changing needs. Organisations which, research and hard experience tell us, are independent of statutory agencies such as SPS or social work.

So if we are really to transform services for women, whether in or out of custody, we need to put collaboration first, identify our organisational strengths and assets and also accept that there are some things which other agencies simply do better.

Much has been learned about building a positive prison environment and there are numerous examples of providing credible alternatives to prosecution and custody but practical experience of this type of joint working, particularly in custodial settings, is too limited.

So let’s get the conversation started, let’s learn what it is that we each do and what makes our work special. Let’s talk but let’s find ways to do that in practice, as part of people’s work rather than round another meeting table.

And one last thought. Much of the report and recommendations of the Commission on Women Offenders and much of the recent discussion and debate around women offenders could equally apply to male offenders. As a country are we ready for that conversation?

Alan Howard is Business Development Manager for Turning Point Scotland

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