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Why are so many women held in prison?

Statistics are facts in their coldest, least emotional form.

The story they tell is at best incomplete, and at worst misleading. Yet when you see the figures relating to women held in prison in Scotland, you don't need much imagination to read between the lines. The truth is there for all to see, and it is profoundly disturbing. In a so-called enlightened age, in a country that supposedly prides itself on compassion and justice, the exponential increase in women inmates in our jails feels more like something from Dickens's day than that of Irvine Welsh.

According to the Scottish Prison Service, since the start of the millennium there has been a 120% rise in the number of women given a custodial sentence, or held in prison on remand. In that time, the number and type of crimes committed has not changed but, from 200 in the late 1990s to 423 in 2012-13, women now represent 5.7% of the prison population compared to 3.5% in 2000. Of these, the greatest number have been convicted of crimes such as shoplifting and fraud (37%). Those guilty of assault and breach of the peace account for 29% but only 6% have committed violent crimes that most of us would agree warrant jail.

Sadly, it goes without saying that many of these women suffer mental health issues and drug problems; likewise, that many convicts' lives have been blighted by poverty, violence, intimidation and sexual abuse. And 71% have no qualifications - almost five times the national rate. What's doubly shocking is that it's not as if the plight of women prisoners has been ignored in recent years.

Quite the contrary. Following the grim spate of suicides in Cornton Vale women's prison in the 1990s, a commission led by Dame Elish Angiolini deemed it not fit for purpose. As a result, it will close in 2018, to be replaced by a better-designed, high-security women-only prison in Greenock, with smaller outlying regional units.

Four years is a long time to wait, however, especially if you are behind bars. In such a place, a single day can feel like forever. That may in part explain why last year, two out of three inmates in the "Vale of death" were on suicide watch. That's a frightening figure, as is the picture of hopelessness it paints. Nor is it a coincidence, surely, that two out of three inmates are also mothers. It's at this point that the figures become sinister. One would never argue that prisoners who are not mothers deserve less careful consideration, but there is no denying that mothers serving time is damaging for society as a whole.

Worse, it has a devastating impact on their children. Some 30% of those whose mothers have been in jail go on to develop mental health or physical problems. One does not need a PhD in criminology to realise that such offspring are also more likely to become offenders themselves.

In Finland and Sweden, creative, practical alternatives to custody have been found, such as community service, curfews and electronic tagging, so that normal family life can be continued without the misery, and stigma, of loss. So successful are such measures that prisons are being closed for lack of inmates. In Scotland, some of these ideas are already being implemented, though at a glacial pace. Tragically, and inexplicably, it seems that prison remains the justice system's preferred punishment. What one would consider the last resort is increasingly being treated as the first port of call. And the demands of common humanity as well as common sense are being ignored.

Such sentencing, for minor crimes, makes no sense. As the suicide watch figures suggest, women in prison feel abject despair. Many have no contact with their children (61%) and some clearly find little comfort in the help they are offered behind bars. Meanwhile, the number of prisoners on remand (70 out of 423) is more worthy of a draconian state than a liberal country.

From the day they were born, the dice were loaded against most women offenders. Isn't society committing another sort of crime by knowingly passing on that inheritance to their children and grandchildren? If Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi could be released on compassionate grounds, surely low-grade offenders should be shown mercy too. It could one day prove to be in all of our best interests.

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