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


What is the best way to reduce the number of women jailed for minor crimes? 

Criminal justice policy in Scotland stands at a crossroads and the man who
has to decide which route to take is the home affairs minister, Henry
McLeish. Ahead lies a straight, broad path leading to the building of more
prisons to hold the increasing number of women being jailed by the courts in
love with the idea that prison is a deterrent.

England has already departed along that road. Judges there are jailing women
so fast that the prison service has ordered 1,100 extra spaces - the biggest
expansion in female cell space since the Second World War.

The alternative decision leads along a path strewn with obstacles and as yet
untrodden - towards the less popular and less understood path of drug
rehabilitation work and sentences served in the community.

The only reason McLeish is looking down the second path at all is because
seven women have hanged themselves in Cornton Vale - Scotland's only women's
prison, with just 210 cells - in the last three years. There has been no
similar suicide cluster in England, and as a result no introspection about
why the criminal justice system is taking more mothers away from their
families to punish them for ever more petty offences at a time when crime is

But those seven deaths have caused an outcry in Scotland and that has led to
research and discussion which could catalyse a change of direction. Cornton
Vale has changed enormously since its inmates started to kill themselves. It
is not just the box of toys in the visiting rrom where partners bring
children to see their mothers each month, nor the stereo and television in
the sitting-room on the bleak wing for new inmates.

There is of a deep change change of culture at the heart of Cornton Vale.
Rather than a machine for processing offenders, it has become a caring
establishment. Staff are anxious to impress on visitors to the prison that
these days they bother to get to know inmates and try to help.

Prisoners confirm that it is true. They are not so much locked up as looked
after, said one. "To be honest, this isn't like a prison," says Mandy,
taking a break from mopping the lino to curl in an armchair with a cup of
coffee. "I don't think it's bad enough for a prison - to me it's like a
children's home. We're not even locked up much - we are out most of the day.
A prison should be a prison, not have TVs and hi-fis."

Mandy was four months pregnant when she was imprisoned for her part in a
drug-induced brawl. She is very grateful to the prison doctor, as he has
succeeded in withdrawing her from the drugs to which she was addicted. "They
had me on a reduction course outside and it wasn't doing a bit of good. It
was the prison that managed to get me off. It has done me the world of good.
I'm going to try and stay clean for the baby."

But Dr Kennedy Roberts, Cornton Vale's general practitioner, is not pleased
to be told that he has won another grateful admirer. Dr Roberts is angry
that the remit of his job is being twisted by the damaged nature of the
women who are rolling up at the prison. Eighty per cent are drug addicts.
Many are in a shockingly poor state of health, he says, thin and pale, with
sores in their mouths and the scar tissue of many attempts to harm
themselves criss-crossing limbs and necks. "I don't want to be running a
world centre of excellence in caring for drug addicts," says Dr Roberts.

"This is a prison, not a drug rehabilitation centre."

Dr Roberts is wrong. Cornton Vale is a drugs rehabilitation centre - or
rather, has become so in the last three years. These days there are crash
boxes on every wall, emergency kits for inmates who need reviving. The staff
are all well aware of the ever-present health problems of female
drug-takers, and are trained to cope.

Sadly, it is not just the physical health of the inmates which is pitifully
poor. Below the health centre (splendidly refurbished in the last three
years) is a corridor with consulting rooms for visiting therapists and

When criminologist Dr Nancy Loucks researched the backgrounds of the Cornton
Vale inmates she discovered that 50 per cent had been sexually abused,
either as children or in adulthood. Eighty per cent had been abused in some
way, whether sexually, physically or emotionally. Depression and self-harm
were rife. Drugs were a way of suppressing the pain.

Superficially, it might seem that a safe, all-female environment like
Cornton Vale might benefit victims of male violence, but psychiatrist Dr
Anne Carpenter says that is not so.

Being removed from their children id psychologically harmful. The mothers
are full of guilt about having failed them and worry about what is happening
to them.

As if to prove the point, in a suicide supervision cell in the remand wing
there is only one decorative item apart from a rip-proof mattress on the
floor. Propped against the window (the bars have been moved outside so they
cannot be used to fix a noose) is a photograph of a little girl, dark hair
in bunches, smiling at the camera on her way to school. It has been much
creased and touched.

Some women do not have even a picture of their children. On another
corridor, Jane has hands criss-crossed with reddened ridges of scar tissue.
Her daughter was taken away and put into care six years ago. That was when
she started to cut herself. She is in Cornton Vale more often than out.
"Sometimes it feels like home," she says, face wary and blank. "I have
self-harmed since 1991 when I got my daughter taken off me. I just couldn't
cope. It gets me quite depressed." Desolate might be more apt.

These days so many of the new arrivals at Cornton Vale have one of the
suicide risk factors - drug abuse, history of previous attempts and so on -
that the prison has taken to viewing every incomer as a suicide risk. The
health centre prescribes a huge range of medicines to wean new arrivals off
their addictions. It welcomes back familiar faces with a sigh and cleans
them up again, before sending them back out to the same old drug-dealing
friends and abusive partners on the same old city housing estates. They
return time and again.

The governor, Kate Donegan, is aware that she is presiding over an
establishment that her counterparts in men's prisons might say they could
barely recognise as a jail. This would be unfair - the prison keeps good
order and the women fulfil the requirement to work. And there are still bars
and a perimeter fence because, after all, the punishment of prison is the
deprivation of liberty..

Donegan is clearly sceptical about the wisdom of prison as a punishment for
most of the women in her charge: "We locked up 199 women and a baby last
night. It is quite incredible. I reckon only about 30 are really serious
offenders from whom the public is at some risk, either of violence or of
repeat offending."

Her scepticism will be reflected in the report on female offenders in
Scotland, published on Wednesday by the chief inspectors of prisons and of
social work. Their uncompromising recommendations - that many women should
be diverted out of the penal system - place Henry McLeish at the crossroads.

He can take the broad, straight path, which is to do nothing. This way he
will stay in tune with the rhetoric coming from the Home Secretary, Jack
Straw, in Westminster, that nuisance crimes must be swept off the streets.
Most of the women in Cornton Vale are there for such crimes, typically
persistant shoplifting to pay for their drug habits.

Of course, if he decides to allow the police and procurators-fiscal and
sheriffs to carry on charging and jailing women as they have been, and there
is another suicide, he will be in deep political trouble.

Or he can take the alternative route. He can start making it possible for
courts to jail fewer of these damaged women, by finding money for drug
rehabilitation centres in the community and more social workers to supervise
community sentences.

If so, he is bound to be accused of being soft on crime. But the accusations
will be wrong. In the last three years we have learned the facts about the
system. It is time Scottish criminal justice was reinvented to take account
of the needs of women, children an victims everywhere, whether in the
witness stand or the dock.

*Names have been changed to protect identities.

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Checked-by: Melodi Cornett