THE damning judgment by the Commission on Women Offenders that Cornton Vale is not fit for purpose is the logical conclusion to increasingly critical reports from the prisons inspectorate over more than a decade, in which the number of women held there has doubled.

More tellingly, it is a measure of how society has changed in the last 40 years. When Cornton Vale was opened in 1975, it was a showpiece prison, with modern facilities light years ahead of the facilities at Gateside Prison in Greenock, which had previously held Scotland's women prisoners.

I was shown round the brand new prison by its first governor, Lady Martha Bruce, who was positive an enormous step forward had been taken in preparing women to cope when they were released.

The building was specifically designed to enable inmates to live in small groups sharing a kitchen, bathroom and toilet, so learning to cook and manage a household was part of the rehabilitative process.

It seems extraordinary now, following the criticism by the chief inspector of prisons, Brigadier Hugh Monro, that some prisoners had to wait two hours to use the toilet, but the electronic locking system which allowed one prisoner at a time to leave her cell to go to the toilet during the night was genuinely thought to herald a new dawn. By overcoming the need to summon a prison officer or for a slopping-out regime, it restored dignity.

Despite the best efforts of the staff, dignity, rehabilitation and the building of self-esteem have been victims of overcrowding, with the average daily number of inmates rising from 210 in 1999/00 to 435 in 2010/11.

Alcohol dependence and chaotic lifestyles were always a factor in many of the inmates being given custodial sentences but the problem of drug addiction resulted in many more women committing offences. This was unforeseen when the jail was built.

The lesson is that bricks and mortar, however well-designed, can never provide the solution to social problems. Their very inflexibility may add to the problem. Cornton Vale, in the centre of Scotland, was seen as equidistant from the major centres of population. Now it is recognised as so out-of-the-way, family visits are difficult.

The need for continually revising a regime in the light of changing situations was Lady Martha Bruce's watchword. That continues to hold good.