Cornton Vale near Stirling has long been one of the disgraces of Scotland's prison system.
Last year the Chief Inspector of Prisons branded it as "an unacceptably poor establishment", with significant failings across its main areas of provision.
The main problems were self-evident. The numbers of inmates on remand were unacceptably high, the physical conditions of the buildings were poor and friends and families experienced difficulties in visiting female offenders. This latter problem was exacerbated by the fact that the majority were mothers with young children.
At a more profound level it was also clear that many of the female offenders should never have been incarcerated in the first place. A report to be published this week will show that some 60% of offenders were under the influence of drugs when they committed their crime, while 42% were under the influence of alcohol.
With that in mind, all attempts to improve the situation have to be welcomed and it is good to know that the forthcoming report, by a special commission on women prisoners in Scotland headed by Dame Elish Angiolini, will recommend some important reforms, including the closure of Cornton Vale and its replacement by a secure unit in the west of Scotland.
By recommending the removal of an institution that represents unthinking and uncaring treatment of female offenders, the commission will be making a vital statement of intent, namely that conditions of this kind will no longer be tolerated in a civilised country.
Some progress – such as the removal of some female offenders to other prisons – has already been made, but much more needs to be done to address issues such as serial re-offending, alcohol and drug abuse and mental-health issues in female criminality.
While the full details of the Angiolini report have still to be revealed it is to be hoped that the commission will have looked at alternatives to sentencing for female offenders, especially those in the vulnerable younger age groups.
While custodial sentences have a place in the criminal justice system they are not the only option, and in some cases – notably dealing with emotionally fragile or damaged female offenders – they can actually make matters worse.
In short, Cornton Vale is an affront to anyone who believes that we as a nation must address the manifold problems of female criminality.
Female offenders are Scotland's forgotten women, and it is time for Cornton Vale to be closed and officially condemned as a draconian, obsolete manner of dealing with society's problems.
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