Baroness Corston is a formidable character when it comes to the issue of female offending. So much so that the former Minister of State at the Ministry of Justice, Maria Eagle, regularly relied on the Labour peer to combat intransigence amongst officials, her technique being simply to ask what the government would say should one of their own get up in the House of Lords and ask what they were up to. After all, the 2007 Corston Report, though just one of many reviews on the subject, remains – along with the Angiolini Report that followed five years later – among the most authoritative.
Rather than present shocking, albeit unsurprising statistics, the former chair of the parliamentary Labour Party laid out a root-and-branch overhaul that tilted the balance away from prisons towards community provision. Existing prisons for women were to be scrapped and replaced with small custodial centres dispersed across the country. A network of women’s centres, to which women offenders and those at risk of offending could be referred, was the way forward.
Change began to materialise. In 2009, the routine strip-searching of women prisoners in England and Wales ended. That same year, a strategy emerged to divert women away from crime, with the use of women’s centres recommended as an alternative to custody and the promise of funding to achieve this. However, there was a “hiatus” in the first two years of the Coalition Government, according to the House of Commons’ Justice Committee.
For others, including Baroness Corston, “stalled” is the mot juste. Even fits of coughing exacerbated by her asthma cannot conceal the exasperation in the 72-year-old’s voice. “This [UK] Government has closed two women’s prisons, this is what really makes me angry about the current lot, they’ve closed two women’s prisons; they say it’s done in order to allow women to be kept closer to home. Now work that one out – it stands logic on its head. And the two prisons they’re closing are the only two women’s prisons with open conditions. I think it’s terrible.”
In truth, one of her chief recommendations and the “only answer”, as she sees it – a move to smaller custodial units – never really got going. “It was one of the things which was accepted by the previous government in a qualified way,” she tells Holyrood. “Then I was told government research had been done on the feasibility of small custodial units. My feeling was always that officials didn’t want them, and they said that they, and I don’t disbelieve this, they said that they had consulted women in prison and that the women themselves didn’t want small custodial units. Now I know enough about women in prison to feel sure that the reason for that was they were scared of bullying, because in prisons, if there is a dispute between men, it is often sorted out physically; with women, it’s sorted out verbally. And if the research was correct, although I have a question mark over it myself, then that’s the reason that was given, that women would feel more vulnerable.”
That said, her trip north to Scotland eight years ago this week confirmed that it is possible to run a penal institution differently. At that stage, Sue Brookes, the current governor at Polmont Young Offenders Institution, was in charge at Cornton Vale. Simple changes in the prison regime – no shouting being among them – were implemented. “I think that that kind of culture is not difficult to bring into a prison if the people who are responsible, i.e. the staff, enforce it,” says Baroness Corston. “Which is why I think that the door should never be closed on the notion of small custodial units.” Yet, that is what concerned third parties, such as Howard League Scotland, claim has effectively happened off the back of Dame Elish Angiolini’s report. Unsurprisingly, the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) fails to agree, its chief executive, Colin McConnell, last month going so far as to tell Holyrood’s Justice Committee that a new national prison, combined with new regional units at HMP Grampian and HMP Edinburgh, “is not just within the spirit of what Dame Elish recommended but, in actuality, it follows it to the letter”.
The former Lord Advocate’s recommendations, in many ways, mirrored those that Baroness Corston had made. Ministers were urged to replace Cornton Vale with a smaller specialist national prison for women serving four years or more and use local prisons to accommodate those on remand or serving short-term sentences. Instead, the SPS intends to construct HMP Inverclyde, a new prison with a maximum capacity of 350. “It will fail,” says the Labour peer matter-of-factly, who takes slight comfort from the fact the facility is not set to be utilised to ease overcrowding in the male estate.
Holyrood’s Equal Opportunities Committee, which took evidence from Baroness Corston in 2009 as part of its inquiry into female offenders in the criminal justice system, largely agreed with her perspective, and supported the principle of moving women from Cornton Vale to smaller units. “I’m astonished because it just seems to have turned Kenny MacAskill’s acceptance of the committee report and Dame Elish’s report on its head; I’m just puzzled,” Baroness Corston adds. “When you are in politics and you’re in government, you should think carefully before you accept a report in any other than a qualified way because you might have to eat your words. Perhaps he shouldn’t have been quite so fulsome in his acceptance of the committee report – I read his response to it – and Dame Elish’s report, because he’s turning them both on their heads, which I think is to the detriment of the women who are going to be imprisoned there [and] an unnecessary drain on the Scottish public purse.”
As for Cornton Vale, while the Labour peer has nothing but admiration for the staff she came across some years ago, she, like many others, welcomes its imminent closure. “I came across prison staff there who said to me, with tones of great regret, that they had women coming into Cornton Vale who were severely addicted to all kinds of drugs, sometimes a polydrug misuse of prescription drugs, alcohol and classified drugs and that it was possible in prison to get them clean, but if you did that and they left prison and immediately get sent back to the same area and fall in with the same people, the danger to their health of going back immediately to the same drug use is catastrophic. So I met staff in Cornton Vale who were saying to me they agonised over whether the really sensible thing to do would be not to detox but to retox these women on leaving prison so they were ready to be given drugs. I mean, that is a counsel of despair.”
Dame Elish’s commission on women offenders may well be remembered most for its calls to flatten Cornton Vale. Yet, the creation of ‘one stop shops’ that would provide access to a range of services for women to ‘reduce reoffending and bring about behavioural change’ – a carbon copy of what Baroness Corston had called for elsewhere across the UK – was top of a list of 37 recommendations. The Scottish Government subsequently allocated £3m funding to a number of projects through to next year, though Baroness Corston is categorical that a commitment ought to be cast iron.
“If they [Scottish Government officials] went to the one in Halifax, it would blow their mind because it’s wonderful and I am very proud [because] it was one of my central recommendations… small custodial units are important, but not nearly as important as the women centres because they keep women out of prison and they have been a resounding success. You visit them, you meet women whose lives have been transformed, who are now confident, who can speak in public, who have somewhere to live, who can be united with their children, and are putting something back into society and can hold their heads up, and they are no longer neighbours from hell.
“They don’t need to be residential. The 218 Centre [in Glasgow] has got a facility I think for women who are on remand and has got one secure floor, but the ones in England and Wales don’t have that facility at all, they are like women’s community centres. When I did my report, I got a senior Home Office official who knew the numbers, I said, ‘I want you to give me the total cost of keeping a woman in prison, I’m talking about the prison building costs and everything else’. And in 2006, he said the cost was £75,000 a year. The cost at that time of a place at the Asha centre in Worcester, which was wonderful, was £750 a year. Now that’s where I think Kenny MacAskill should be looking. Not to lock up 350 disturbed, mentally-ill women.”