Source: Sunday Times (UK) 
Pubdate: Sun, 05 Jul 1998
Author: Marcello Mega 



THE prisons minister for Scotland, Henry McLeish, will announce this week
the contracts for two pilot electronic tagging projects. This will
underline his intent to pursue a radical agenda on penal policy.

The death in hospital yesterday of Mary Cowan, 27, from Glasgow, a remand
prisoner awaiting sentence on shoplifting and bail charges who had been
found unconscious in her cell at Cornton Vale on Friday, has emphasised the
need for change, according to Scottish Office sources. Tagging will mean
fewer people, particularly those vulnerable to suicide, being sent to jail.

Cowan, who had attempted to hang herself with a radio flex, was understood
to have been distraught at being refused permission to attend the funeral
of her cousin, Gavin Hester, who had killed himself while on remand at
Greenock prison.

Hers was the eighth suicide in two years at Scotland's only women's prison,
and the fifth in a week in Scottish prisons, a spate which has coincided
with the Scottish Prison Service's launch of a new anti-suicide strategy.

Remand prisoners at Barlinnie and Longriggend and a convicted killer at
Glenochil have also been found hanged in their cells in the past few days.

The continuing failure to prevent suicides in prison and a rate which is
roughly twice that of England and Wales has forced penal policy back
towards the head of the political agenda. Labour has come under increasing
criticism from its opponents for promising a number of radical reforms but
having delivered little of substance to date.

The electronic tagging contracts, which will be awarded to two private
firms, are expected to be the first in a series of concrete signals that
the radical agenda previously outlined by McLeish will be pursued.

He has already said, in response to the suicides at Cornton Vale, that he
wants to see no female prisoners aged under 18 by 2000, and his longer-term
objective is to halve the total prison population that stands at 6,000.

McLeish's early announcements on law and order provoked some conflict with
the judiciary as well as the criticism that realistic alternatives to
prison had to be devised by government ministers.

In the next few months, electronic tagging of some minor and remand
prisoners will be followed by proposals designed to make community service
orders easier to enforce. The linchpin of the new strategy, proposed in the
crime and disorder bill going through parliament, will be drug treatment
and testing orders.

Repeat offenders whose crimes are drug-related would be sentenced to a
treatment programme and would then be subject to testing for future drug

McLeish and his aides believe the strategy has the dual benefit of keeping
people out of prison and tackling the cause of numerous offences. Some
estimates suggest that more than half of all crimes committed are

Drug abuse has also been identified within the prison service as one of the
principal causes of its high suicide rate. McLeish said this weekend that
studies ordered as a result of the recent suicides had shown that the
prison population mirrored society as a whole. Most suicides were in the
18-28 age group and a large number had drug problems.

"The prison agency is well aware of the tragic consequences for families
when these tragedies occur. It is dispiriting for prison officers and is an
issue that must be tackled by the criminal justice system and by the
government. We are now looking at how we can strengthen the suicide
prevention strategy," he said.

Copyright 1998 Times Newspapers Ltd. 
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Checked-by: Richard Lake