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Women's prison population rises by 120%

SCOTLAND's female prison population has risen by 120% since 2000, despite repeated calls to reduce the number of women being locked up.

Figures published by the penal reform charity Howard League Scotland show that women accounted for 5.7% of the nation's prison population in 2012-13, compared with 3.5% in 2000.

However, there has been no change in the patterns or numbers of offences being committed during that time.

The most common reason for females being behind bars in 2012-13 was crimes of dishonesty, such as shoplifting or fraud, which accounted for 37% of crimes. Some 29% involved offences such as common assault or breach of the peace.

Around one-quarter involved crimes such as drugs offences, while violent crime accounted for just six% of cases.

Research has shown that women prisoners are more likely to be of lower risk to public safety, to be in prison for dishonesty offences and to have mental health or drug problems than male inmates.

After a spate of suicides at Scotland's all-female prison, Cornton Vale in Stirling, in the 1990s - which led to the nickname "the vale of death" - it was recommended the female prison population, then at 200, was halved by the year 2000.

Two years ago, an eight-month review by a commission headed by former Lord Advocate Dame Elish Angiolini renewed the call for fewer women to be sent to prison.

However, currently there are 423 women in prison, including 70 on remand, according to figures provided by the Scottish Prison Service (SPS).

Howard League Scotland will this week publish a series of articles written by a number of experts working with women offenders to highlight issues that still remain two years on from the publication of the report by the Commission on Women Offenders.

Lisa Mackenzie, spokeswoman for Howard League Scotland, said: "There is widespread concern about the numbers of women still passing through our criminal justice system … the number of women in prison continues to hover around the 400 mark.

"Concerns also remain about the high numbers of women held on remand, the vast majority of whom do not go on to receive a custodial sentence."

Examples of alternatives to custody include community payback orders, which can involve carrying out unpaid work in the community, or completing a drug treatment programme; restorative justice programmes, which can include community service and face-to-face meetings with victims; and use of electronic tagging to monitor those on bail.

But Mackenzie added: "We have yet to see the necessary shift from custody to community-based disposals."

A spokeswoman for the Scottish Government said that "significant progress" had been made towards meeting the recommendations of the Commission on Women Offenders, such as £2.7 million invested in a mentoring service for women leaving prison.

She said: "We continue to work towards meeting the recommendations of the commission with the SPS building of a new national women's prison, and the development of regional prison facilities in Edinburgh and Grampian. This will enable many women prisoners to be located closer to their families.

"We are supporting the NHS in examining the most effective ways to respond to common mental health problems for women offenders."

YOUNG OFFENDERS

Latest figures from the Scottish Prison Service show that two females under the age of 18 are currently in prison in Scotland. Tam Baillie, Scotland's Commissioner for Children and Young People, welcomed progress in reducing the number of 16 to 17-year-old females in prison, but said there should be an ambition "to make it zero".

He believes there should be greater emphasis on offering intensive support to those who have experienced abuse or mental health issues.

"It is essential to get to those problem areas rather than just use custody," Baillie said, adding that most of the crimes carried out by young women were at the "low level".

"There will still be a need for young people who require secure care for whatever period of time, as they might be a danger to themselves or to others. But the vast majority of these young people can be effectively dealt with and supported within the community.

"That, in my view, will actually form the basis for much more positive outcomes for those young people in later life, rather than experiencing custody very early on in their adult life."

He added: "The young female population in custody is most likely to become your older female population who experience custody.

"If you look at the profile of women in prison, you will find it is very often characterised by substance misuse, mental health problems, domestic abuse problems, violence in their early lives.

"If we can focus on those issues at an early age with those young women, there is a better chance of being able to get to the root causes of their problematic behaviour … I think that is a more appropriate response."

WOMEN ON REMAND

The issue of remand has long raised concerns. An accused is remanded in custody in order to allow further inquiries to be made by the police or the procurator-fiscal following an arrest or after being committed for trial.

Figures show that 70% of women on remand will not receive a custodial sentence. An average of around one-quarter of the female prison population are on remand, against 18% of the male prison population.

Tom Halpin, chief executive of community safety charity Sacro and chairman of the Shine partnership, a mentoring service for women who have been in prison, has argued that the use of remand was "disproportionate" for women.

He said: "There are other ways you can deal with women at that stage in the process … Then you can start to deal with some of the root causes of offending, such as addiction, mental health, and abusive relationships."

Halpin said one possibility which could be considered is providing supported accommodation for women to help them comply with bail conditions.

He emphasised that offences had to be recognised and dealt with appropriately, but added: "Are these women dangerous? The reality is that is rarely the case.

"So you then have to ask the question, 'Is prison a good place for women in that situation as far as their physical and mental health is concerned?'. I would say probably not.

"We are using a Victorian solution around imprisonment to deal with them in a modern society."

THE EFFECT ON FAMILIES

When it comes to the issue of women prisoners and their families, the statistics are grim. Two-thirds of women in prison have children, but only 39% of female prisoners in Scotland receive visits from their children.

The toll of having a parent in prison is also clear, with figures showing that 30% of children with a parent in prison will develop physical or mental health problems.

Sarah Roberts, child and family support manager at Families Outside, a charity which supports families of prisoners, said in order to reduce the female prison population, it was important to identify and tackle the reasons behind the crime - such as poverty, abuse and substance misuse.

She pointed to the 218 Centre in Glasgow, which provides help with mental health issues and programmes to help tackle drug abuse or build self-esteem, as an example of how to help women in their own communities.

Roberts said alternatives to custody include community payback orders, restorative justice programmes, and home detention curfews, which allow certain prisoners to serve some of their sentence in the community, while wearing an electronic tag.

She said: "These help keep families together and ultimately limit the damage done to children, who are not guilty of any offence and should therefore not be 'punished' for it.

"Families Outside was delighted by a recent decision … to impose a community payback order, rather than a custodial sentence, on a woman who had sole custody of three children, two of whom have a chronic medical condition.

"In addition, there is an increasing tendency among sheriffs to allow women to make arrangements for the care of their children before entering custody."

She added: "The trick is to make custody the 'alternative' sentence, with a presumption that people who commit an offence will remain in the community unless it is absolutely essential for public safety that they be removed."

COMMUNITY SENTENCES

The report from the Commission on Women Offenders highlighted that the average cost of implementing a community payback order is around £2400 - half the average cost of a three-month prison sentence.

Figures also show that 70% of women offenders who received a prison sentence of three months or less were convicted again within two years.

Tom Jackson, chief officer for Glasgow Community Justice Authority, a partnership of organisations aiming to reduce reoffending, questioned why so many women are being imprisoned in Scotland.

He said: "Why do we have so many women on remand and have the vast majority of women on a custodial sentence there for very short periods of time?

"Does this make communities safer, does it increase the likelihood that a woman will move away from offending, do we get value of money? The answer to all those questions is no. The real answer is we need to ration our use of custody."

Jackson disputed the idea that community payback orders, for example, were "lenient".

He said: "There are community sentences where individuals can pay the penalty for offending behaviour, do a degree of reparative work, contribute something back to communities - and where it works well, the individual also gets something out of that.

"Prison has a place and we know the SPS is very effective in working with individuals when they have the time and space to do that.

"However, we would like to see it reserved for those individuals where it is warranted and not for those very fleeting sentences when people are in and out the door so quickly there isn't time enough to intervene effectively, but it is long enough out of their communities to disrupt services and support and family ties and jobs and whatever else is going on for a woman."

PRISON PLACES

Two years ago, the Commission on Women Offenders recommended that Cornton Vale be replaced with a "smaller specialist prison". In the wake of the group's report, it was announced a new "custom-made" women's prison would be built in Inverclyde - it is due to open in 2017 and is set to have 350 beds.

However, Dr Margaret Malloch, senior research fellow at Stirling University's Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research, said both the development of community alternatives and a reduction in available prison places were needed to reduce the female prisoner population.

She said: "My concern is that if [community] services are seen as fragmented and Inverclyde is presented as an all-singing, all-dancing institution, then how confident will sentencers be at using sentences in the community?"

Malloch pointed to the example of Sweden, which has recently closed four prisons as a result of falling inmate numbers, thought to be partly due to its strong focus on rehabilitating prisoners.

"Finland also in particular made a decision they weren't holding prisoners under a certain length of sentence or for particular types of offences … As a result the prison population was reduced.

"I would certainly like to see that being considered [in Scotland]."

A spokesman for the Scottish Prison Service said the decision to develop Inverclyde had resulted from extensive consultation on how to provide the best possible facilities as quickly as possible.

He said a regional unit for women had been opened at HMP Grampian in Peterhead and there were plans for a 100-bed facility for women in Edinburgh,

He added that a number of other improvements had been carried out as a result of the Angiolini Commission report.

HISTORY OF CORTON VALE

ONE of the key recommendations of the commission headed by Dame Elish Angiolini was to close Scotland's only all-woman prison, saying it was "not fit for purpose".

In a series of stinging criticisms, the report said overcrowding at Cornton Vale, near Stirling, had caused "significant problems" for management and staff and warned the mental health needs of women were not being addressed.

The prison was built in 1975 and initially took only convicted women and girls, with less than 100 inmates.

It became notorious in the late 1990s following a series of suicides among inmates, many of whom were young mothers struggling with addiction.

In 2009, prison inspectors also warned it was in a "state of crisis".

It is now due to close its doors to remand and convicted women prisoners in four years' time.

Inmates will be transferred to a new high-security female-only HMP Inverclyde in Greenock, with smaller regional units in Grampian and Edinburgh also being set up for female prisoners.

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