Campaigners for prison reform are to send teams of volunteers into Scottish courts to monitor the way the justice system treats women, amid concern with the way female offenders are dealt.

Despite long-standing efforts by successive Scottish governments to cut the number of women sent to jail, the female prison population in Scotland doubled in the space of a decade, with many women imprisoned for relatively minor offences.

Now a new group Justice for Women is to track proceedings in five Scottish courts in an attempt to understand how women are treated, what kind of sentences they receive, what effort is put into examining alternatives to custody and the impact of sentencing on family life and child welfare.

Beginning on March 21, members of the group – which grew out of the Women for Independence organisation set up prior to the Scottish independence referendum – will cover Glasgow, Edinburgh, Stirling and Perth sheriff courts as well as courts in either Dundee or Aberdeen.

Maggie Mellon said the campaign was urging the Scottish Government and the courts to ‘turn off the tap’ of women being sent to jail, especially for crimes of poverty such as fine default.

Members will also look at the facilities women involved in the criminal justice system are expected to tolerate, following this week’s report by Scotland’s chief inspector of prisons David Strang which branded conditions in the female cells at Glasgow Sheriff Court ‘degrading and inhumane’ and revealed that in women’s prison HMP Cornton Vale, inmates had been advised to use the sink when unable to access a toilet at night.

Ms Mellon said: “We are looking to inform ourselves and the public, but we already know prison can end up with children being placed in care and lives disrupted. We will be watching out for short sentences being imposed for offences like fine default, and gathering information and stories about the injustice and crazy economics of imprisonment.”

Cornton Vale is to be replaced by a smaller prison accommodating around 80 women offenders deemed a risk to society, and several smaller community-based prisons for low-risk offenders. However Ms Mellon said the Scottish Government was mistaken to think that better prisons would lead to a reduction in reoffending.

Former Scottish Socialist Party MSP Caroline Leckie, now a trainee solicitor, is understood to be among those involved in the new campaign. She knows both sides of the system, having spent a night in Cornton Vale herself in 2005, after refusing to pay a fine for breach of the peace imposed following an anti-nuclear demonstration at Faslane.

The Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service has said it is working with the Scottish Prison Service to improve conditions within custody cells. However a spokesman declined to comment on the campaign and said sentencing was a matter for the judiciary.