Pubdate: Mon, 11 May 1998
Source: Scotsman (UK) 
Author: Jenny Booth, Home Affairs Correspondent


A WATERSHED report due out this week is expected to recommend that far fewer
Scottish women are jailed, after seven hanged themselves at Cornton Vale
prison, near Stirling.

The report will put the Scottish prisons minister, Henry McLeish, on a
collision course with his English colleagues over the issue of the
imprisonment of women.

Clive Fairweather and Angus Skinner, Scotland's chief inspectors of prisons
and of social work, are expected to recommend that far more women are
diverted from jail towards drug rehabilitation, probation and community service.

"One of the key aims of this examination will be to identify ways of
reducing the number of vulnerable women being sent to prison," said Mr
McLeish, when he announced the study's remit.

But the Prison Service in England and Wales has just ordered the biggest
expansion in women's prison places since the Second World War, providing
1,100 extra cells.

"The female prison population is increasing at a greater rate than the male
population," said a Prison Service spokesman in London. "The courts are
sending more women to prison."

A Home Office spokesman said: "Women's imprisonment has not been a major
issue for us in England and Wales."

The lack of concern about the rising tide of women being jailed south of the
Border contrasts with acute worry in Scotland over the string of deaths at
Cornton Vale.

Michael Forsyth, the Conservative Scottish secretary who often quoted the
then home secretary, Michael Howard's dictum that "prison works", agreed to
fund more women's bail accommodation in Scottish cities after the sixth
suicide. Most of the deaths have been among remand prisoners.

The families of the dead women, particularly Jim Bollan, the father of a
heroin addict and single mother, Angela Bollan, have also been powerful
advocates for a new approach to women's punishment.

Mr McLeish ordered the Fairweather/Skinner report last December, the day
after Sandra Brown became the seventh woman in less than three years to be
found hanging in her cell.

Since then he has repeatedly referred to it as a "watershed" document, and
to his concern at the numbers of damaged women being jailed. Scottish Office
sources say privately that the report will probably be implemented in full.

Its remit was to assess issues ranging from the nature of the crimes that
women were committing and the sentences the courts were handing out, to the
options for diverting more women from jail and how effective these might be
in stopping them from reoffending.

The report has had a strong input from a criminologist, Dr Nancy Loucks,
whose recent research into the backgrounds of the women imprisoned at
Cornton Vale showed that 50 per cent had been sexually abused as children or
adults, and more than 80 per cent were addicted to a cocktail of illegal and
prescribed drugs.

Depression, self-harm and bullying were rife among the inmates, of whom more
than 90 per cent were viewed as some kind of suicide risk. Dr Loucks
concluded that Cornton Vale was effectively being expected to act as a
hospital ward for Scottish society's most damaged and vulnerable women.

Cornton Vale's governor, Kate Donegan, has estimated that only about 30 of
the 200 women imprisoned there pose a threat to the public.

The Fairweather report will also cover the fact that rates of imprisonment
of women have risen dramatically in Scotland this decade. Between 1992 and
1996, the number of Scottish women being convicted of any crime fell by a
quarter, from 28,050 to 21,300. But the proportion being jailed went up by
half, from 2.7 per cent to 4.1 per cent, as sheriffs took on board the
"prison works" philosophy. The increases were largely among women being
jailed for short periods for petty crime.

In March this year, when numbers at Cornton Vale peaked at a 20-year high,
Mr McLeish made it plain that he was perturbed.

"It is not my role to influence sentencing decisions by the courts, but I
have made it plain that I intend to extend the range of alternatives to
custody," Mr McLeish said.

"Their acceptability obviously has to be a matter for the sentencers, but
the Fairweather report will be a watershed for me in all matters on this."

Patterns are similar in England, where the number of women convicted of
serious crimes fell between 1992 and 1996, while the proportion being
imprisoned rose sharply. But the official response by the Home Office and
Prison Service has been different, with a 450 cell women's superjail planned
at Ashford, Kent, and three further 200 cell units being converted for women

"It depresses us all very much," said Professor Dorothy Wedderburn, who is
chairing a voluntary sector inquiry into women's imprisonment in England and

"The consequences for the families of these women jailed often far away from
their homes is that the kids go into care. We know that 30 per cent of the
women in jail have been in care, and 20 per cent have children in care. It
is a vicious cycle building up."

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Checked-by: Melodi Cornett