By Margaret Malloch
On Monday 26 January, Justice Secretary Michael Matheson announced that the development of a 300-bed prison for women at Inverclyde would no longer proceed, noting that “we need to be bolder and take a more radical and ambitious approach in Scotland”. This is a very welcome step, creating space for the development of a hopeful and more optimistic approach to women in conflict with the law in Scotland.
The proposed new prison had met with opposition since plans to build it were announced in October 2012. In part, because the long-term investment that it represented was in marked contrast to the short-term, closely evaluated services that had been introduced in the community; but more significantly as it contradicted the recommendations of the Commission on Women Offenders
which had made the case for the closure of HMP Cornton Vale and its replacement by a smaller specialist prison for the few women deemed to present a significant public risk.
Campaigners, spurred on by Howard League Scotland and joined latterly by Women for Independence, kept up their opposition to the prison expansion, arguing that imprisoning women is costly and on occasion harmful. Admittedly, considerable time and effort went into developing the plans for the new prison by the team tasked with this responsibility, but it also highlights the central role of the prison in our society. Making prison the focus for services and provisions is counter-productive when a similar scale of resources is lacking or under-funded within local community provision. Initiatives such as the 218 Centre in Glasgow provide an opportunity to work with and support women without the imposition of a prison sentence, where appropriate, and they deliver better outcomes for women and critically, their families.
The imprisonment of women in Scotland has been investigated by various committees over the years, including HM Inspectors of Prisons for Scotland and the Equal Opportunities Committee of the Scottish Parliament. And there have been tragic circumstances to motivate such concerns – between 1995 and 2002, 11 women died at HMP and YOI Cornton Vale, sending shock waves across Scotland and further afield. However the number of women in prison in Scotland continued to rise, as calls from the 1998 Social Work and Prison Inspectorates for a ‘twin-track’ approach consisting of both the development and enhancement of community disposals and a reduction of the number of available prison places to support the use of community disposals, failed to materialise. International evidence shows that attempts at penal reform are limited when proposals are partially implemented, particularly those which depend upon enhanced community provisions and a reduction in prison places. Additionally, justifying prison construction on the basis of statistical projections which take no account of community initiatives reinforces the weighting of further resources towards prisons and away from communities.
The decision to change direction in the development of Inverclyde Prison is thus significant, but there is a need to ensure that ongoing developments retain the ‘radical and ambitious approach’ argued for by Michael Matheson. With a halt to the expansion of prison places, perhaps attention can now be directed to the ongoing development of community services. Although there has been significant investment in this area, funding that is often provided in two year cycles can cause considerable uncertainty for workers and service-users alike, allowing little time for services to continue beyond a set-up and pilot phase. Short-term interventions are unable to evidence longer-term impact.
We know that many women who end up in courts and custody in Scotland, and internationally for that matter, live lives characterised by poverty, addiction, experiences of violence, bereavement and often major physical and mental health problems (and this is not to suggest that poverty causes crime, but that the poor are more likely to be criminalised and punished). We also know that recent increases in the imprisonment of women are the result of more punitive sentencing practices, rather than increases in crime or serious crime by women. As a society, we need to ensure that services are available in local communities to provide support and appropriate assistance to those who need it, preferably long before circumstances result in arrest and criminal justice intervention.
I for one, welcome the decision to halt the Inverclyde development and the opportunity this presents to do something different. The establishment of community justice centres and continued provision of mentoring schemes and innovative provisions such as the 218 Centre in Glasgow have the potential to make a significant difference to the lives of those who access them. If we can use this opportunity to make a significant difference to how we respond to women, then surely that will provide a basis to rethink our response to men and young people caught up in the criminal justice system. Given the ongoing reduction in crime rates across the UK, perhaps it is time to explore the benefits of embarking on an abolitionist path. That would be bold.
And let’s not take our eye off the ball. The criminal justice system is designed to deal with ‘crime’, our responsibilities as a society go far beyond this remit and, to take a more radical and ambitious approach in Scotland requires us to examine our priorities as a society for all its members. If, as Wilkinson and Picket suggest, levels of inequality in a country are related to levels of imprisonment
(low levels of inequality appear to be directly related to low levels of imprisonment) then our eyes should be set steadfastly on that horizon.