Pubdate: Thu, 14 May 1998
Source: Scotsman (UK) 
Author: Jenny Booth


ITS authors admit there is not a single new idea in the report Women
Offenders - A Safer Way, which was adopted by the Scottish Office yesterday
as the blueprint for punishing women in future.

Yet it was hailed by criminal justice professionals as the most radical
document in recent penal history.

Its radicalism is to start from the premise that women are different. They
offend less often and less violently than men. They react with more distress
to being fined and locked up in prison, because they have less money and
bigger family responsibilities. They take drugs for more emotional reasons,
to blot out the heartache of abuse and mental illness. And so it only makes
sense for them to be punished in different ways.

Women's groups and criminal justice reformers have been claiming this for
years. But until the suicides began at Cornton Vale women's prison they
remained voices in the wilderness.

Clive Fairweather and Angus Skinner, the chief inspectors of prisons and
social work, have now drawn together the relevant information and arguments
in their assessment of female offending.

Henry McLeish, the Scottish Office minister whose duties include women as
well as home affairs promised yesterday to provide the willpower to drive

"It seemed to me the tragic deaths at Cornton Vale weren't just an issue of
great heartache to the families involved and despair to prison staff, but it
touched the public in Scotland and forced us to ask, is there a better way
to avoid this?" said Mr McLeish.

"This report is exactly that - in 1998, a way of doing better. This is an
issue that extends beyond the prison walls. There was a feeling for years
that the needs of women offenders were different from men. That is the
central conclusion of this report."

Mr McLeish accepted that the population of Cornton Vale women's prison
should be halved, and said he would try to ensure no more women under 18
were jailed by 2000.

He appointed Professor Sheila McLean of Glasgow University to convene a task
force that will tackle the acute problems of women offenders from Glasgow
and the west of Scotland, who represent 80 per cent of the inmates of
Cornton Vale.

It is likely to concentrate on improved ways of housing, treating and
punishing the very high number of women who become tangled in the criminal
justice system because of their drug problems, in particular Glasgow's 900
heroin-injecting prostitutes.

Prof Maclean said of the Cornton Vale report yesterday: "It's an extremely
impressive report, which shows something we have been aware of for years -
that because the majority of people involved in the criminal justice system
are men, it has been a very male culture. It makes perfect sense to see if
there is a way the system can be adapted to the needs of minority groups,
like women."

Every social work department in Scotland will now be required to draw up a
separate criminal justice policy for women, devising new community
programmes and collecting data on women offenders.

George Irving, the vice-president of the Association of Directors of Social
Work, said: "Social workers have been to blame for failing to consider the
needs of women in the past. We thoroughly welcome this report. I feel
optimistic at being able to subscribe wholeheartedly to a new approach that
both local and central government can agree on, instead of submitting to a
bombardment of legislation."

Enthusiasm like Mr Irving's is expected to help the new policies trickle
down to the grassroots where they will be put into practice. Mr McLeish
promised to ensure that money is also not a stumbling block.

Rebuilding work ordered for Cornton Vale - including knocking groups of
three cells into double bedsits for two prisoners to share, providing one
another with mutual support - is scheduled to cost 2.25 million, Scottish
Prison Service area director Pete Withers revealed.

Kate Donegan, the governor of Cornton Vale, said she was very happy at the
sweeping perspective the report had taken of the whole criminal justice system.

But even if does not cost a penny to implement, yesterday's report will
always be the most expensive document in Scottish criminal justice history.
Seven women hanged themselves in prison before the Government decided that
it was time for a complete rethink on the way society punishes female offenders.

"My first reaction is that this report is a year too late," said Jim Bollan.
He and his wife Anne have been left to bring up their infant granddaughter
after their 19-year-old daughter Angela committed suicide in Cornton Vale in

"The Government should have commissioned this 12 months ago when they came
into office. I welcome the main thrust of the document, that a lot less
women should be sent to prison.

"That's what the families of the victims have been asking for for a long
time, and if people had listened a couple of years ago when Angela died we
might not have had any more deaths."

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Checked-by: Melodi Cornett