Dame Elish Angiolini's 2012 PRT Lecture

The Prison Reform Trust Lecture2012
London, 26 November

Dame Elish Angiolini DBE QC
Reforming Women’s Justice

Some 30 years ago I became a Scottish public prosecutor. Prosecution may seem like a pretty grim career choice for a 23 year old fresh out of Law School.

Certainly, positive, high profile role models for budding public prosecutors were hard to find in the 1970’s. In literature and in wider fiction prosecutors are usually portrayed, with the odd noble exception, as figures of some suspicion and of doubtful merit. From the Merchant of Venice to Rumpole of the Bailey they appear alternatively as a pretty gruesome or earnest bunch (though these characterisations are not mutually exclusive).

More recently, in Hollywood and televised fiction, they appear as somewhat hapless and straight - laced opponents (usually in ill fitting cheap suits) who stand against the lovingly eccentric and talented defence lawyers of Hollywood legend.  Criminal defence lawyers some of whom have, in Scotland at least, been subject to a stardust make over in recent years are now known and marketed more euphemistically by the almost ubiquitous title of  “Human Rights Lawyers” and are natural stars.

Such works as Harper Lee’s magnificent “ To kill a Mockingbird” and the play and film “Twelve Angry Men” have laid a very poor foundation for any prospect of securing public empathy for prosecutors generally. John Grisham’s description of prosecutor Rufus Budley in the novel “A time to kill” is also an eloquent case in point:
Bring on the trial. Put the jury in the box. He guaranteed a conviction. He guaranteed a death penalty. He was obnoxious, offensive, arrogant, self righteous. He was himself.
More recently Steig Larsson’s trilogy features a wholly feckless prosecutor, a character Jan Sjavik describes as an “indictment of the arrogance, stupidity and sheer malevolence of those in society who have been entrusted with great power and influence.”

On the other hand, Horace Rumpole, celebrated defence counsel, is held in deep affection by the nation as he declared himself a staunch believer in the presumption of innocence and refused, on ethical grounds, to prosecute.
As one American district attorney has said,
In short, popular culture has always loved the criminal defence lawyer. They are the underdog, the plucky defenders of innocent accused. In contrast, Prosecutors have long been depicted as over zealous, ambitious and hell bent on framing some poor, marginalized client.
So I am delighted as a former public prosecutor to have been invited to deliver this prestigious lecture. Indeed as a former prosecutor it is lovely to be invited anywhere at all!

Despite the inauspicious public relations surrounding the role of public prosecutor, I persisted in my application. I persisted because I had grown up surrounded by crime. As the shipyards of Govan in Glasgow faded and many closed in the 1970s more and more, so called, problem families were moved into an area close to my home. That area became known locally as the “wine alley”. How it got that nickname is not clear but the term used in Glasgow at that time to describe tenants moved out of council housing on a temporary basis was of being “decanted” and this may or may not account for the label.

From being a hard but proud and solid working class fulcrum of the city of Glasgow, Govan seemed to me as a teenager to descend into a quite different place, in a spiral of despair, weighed down by a growing burden of deprivation and unemployment. Crime mushroomed. My parents’ and neighbours’ homes became regular targets for thieves. Time and time again the front door or windows of the house were smashed open and the house wrecked by those in pursuit of what was usually slim pickings.

As with all of our neighbours, my mother’s response to the experience of constant burglaries was to limit her visits to the shops or out of the house, to reinforce the security of the house by wrought iron on the glass door and to keep the storm doors firmly locked.

I returned from school one gloriously sunny day to find my 60 year old mother in the garden wearing a sun hat and looking every bit like a benign maternal figure from an Enid Blyton novel, but she was perched at the top of a set of ladders at the rear garden wall, gently inserting broken pieces of sharp glass into cement she had mixed and placed there, as if she was innocently planting next year’s daffodil bulbs. This mild and kind woman was fraught with fear. As a family we had lost confidence in the safety and security of our welcoming home.

Those responsible for wrecking our home repeatedly were faceless, selfish and mean spirited bullies (or so we believed) - thugs who had transformed happy family homes all around the area into mini fortresses now occupied by anxious and vulnerable people. But much more dominant than the sense of violation was the desperation for these constant housebreakings to stop. Even then desistance trumped retribution in our outlook.

So when I started out on my career as a prosecutor,  messianic may be too robust a description of my disposition,  but I held a strong, instinctive view about the need for justice and punishment – an innate sense of the need to pursue the bad guys, to ensure that victims of crime could be empowered and have peace and security restored in their lives.

After dealing with hundreds of cases in my first few years in my twenties, I matured somewhat, both as a  prosecutor and as a human being. It took a surprisingly short time to discover that the idea of criminals and victims as two separate and distinct groups was sometimes an artificial dichotomy. Many of those who were accused of crime were also appearing in the very same court as a victim of crime. This was particularly noticeable with women offenders. My notion of “them and us” was dispelled within months.

But while I and many others matured rapidly in the understanding of this feature, it appeared to me that many politicians over those thirty years seem to have come round very reluctantly and slowly to recognize this important aspect of offending, at least in public – with politicians, particularly in opposition, using sentencing and toughness regularly as a populist mantra, a luxury often abandoned or mitigated once in government when the sterility of such posturing gives way to a stark recognition of the sheer complexity of the issues.

The ferocity of such criticism by opposition politicians can impact on the courage of government to grapple frankly with the tensions between rehabilitation and punishment lest they be characterized as wimpish or soft. Sadiq Khan, as Shadow Justice Secretary identified this timidity when he addressed the Fabian Society in 2011 observing,

We became hesitant in talking about rehabilitation and the merits of investment in bringing down reoffending rates. It was almost as if we had to give off the impression we were even more tough on crime just to demonstrate we weren’t soft on crime.

Playing tough in order not to look soft made it harder to focus on what is effective.

Very recently the Prime Minister grappled with this dilemma when he said,

So do I take a tough line on crime or a touchy feely one? In no other public debate do the issues get as polarized as this. On climate change you don’t have to be in denial on the one hand or campaigning to get every car off the road on the other. Life isn’t that simple – so government policy isn’t that simple. And yet with the crime debate people seem to want it black or white. Lock ‘em up or let ‘em out. Blame the criminal or blame society. Be tough or act soft. We’re so busy going backwards and forwards we never move the debate on.
The Prime Minister’s excellent analysis was promptly followed by his compromise of “tough but intelligent”, phraseology that still clings somewhat to a machismo vocabulary. But it will be what he does, irrespective of the chosen rhetoric that really matters. I would encourage the Prime Minister and the new Justice Secretary to be courageous (and not in any sense of “courage” as conveyed by Sir Humphrey to Jim Hacker) Go for what works rather than what pleases.


Turning to those issues specific to Scotland, I am aware that as a distinct jurisdiction of a quite different nature and scale from England and Wales, what may be appropriate for one jurisdiction may be wholly inappropriate for another but there are most certainly common problems and themes to be found across the UK.

Following a harrowing report from HM Inspector of Prisons for Scotland in 2011 about conditions in the national women’s prison in Scotland, HMP Cornton Vale, I was asked by the Justice Secretary for Scotland to Chair a Commission on Women Offenders. We started our work in August 2011 and reported in April 2012.  We were invited to look at ways of identifying better outcomes for women offenders. This request came in the wake of statics that were shocking.
  • At any point in time 1 in 4 women in Scotland’s prisons are on remand pending trial or sentence, but only 30% actually go onto receive a custodial sentence.
  • 75% of custodial sentences imposed on women are for 6 months or less - and yet we know that short prison sentences are not effective in reducing reoffending.   
  • 80% of women in Cornton Vale prison have mental health problems and 60% said they had been under the influence of drugs at the time of their offence.
  • The economic and social cost of reoffending over a 10 year period is on average over £75,000 per female offender.
  • Imprisonment also affects the life chances of children.  Approximately 30% of prisoners’ kids develop physical and mental health problems and have a higher risk of ending up in jail.

Although Scotland’s crime rate is at a 37 year all time low and the profile of crimes committed by women has not changed significantly, the female prison population in Scotland has more than doubled over the past ten years.

This massive increase has occurred despite a general understanding from research and a swathe of some 10 authoritative reports within the UK concluding, unequivocally, that the imprisonment of women could and should, be reduced.

 This was what Dorothy Wedderburn concluded in her review and, most recently, so did Jean Corston in her seminal review. But implementation of those reports and several others has been stuttering and piecemeal. The Prison Reform Trust and many others of you in this audience must be congratulated for maintaining the profile and pressure on these issues and for carrying out some invaluable research.  I believe your persistent lobbying for the status quo to be changed is making the difference, but the need for strong leadership in Government, a clear strategy for women offenders and a systematic research base is also critical if implementation is not to be fragmented and staggered.

The approach since the publication of the Corston Report has inhibited the potential impact and effectiveness of what was designed as a coherent set of recommendations rather than a list for cherry picking.

A distinct approach for women?

During the Scottish Commission’s review of literature and research it became clear that while the main factors which contribute to male and female offending overlap there are very distinctive issues around female offending that justify a distinct approach from male offenders. This is now recognized worldwide with the United Nations Rules for the treatment of Women Offenders (The Bangkok Rules), setting out the first women specific standards.

Undoubtedly, some women should be in prison to protect the public and to mark the seriousness of their crimes. But the significant majority are women who are repeatedly committing lower level offences and their offending is often a result of overwhelming underlying issues, such as addiction or mental health which could be better dealt with in the community.  Many women will have also been the victims of severe and repeated physical and sexual abuse.

Although these factors do not excuse breaking the law, we must be able to find better ways of addressing their behaviour than merely resorting to locking up more and more women. Prison should not be the default position for women requiring respite or social care. If we don’t address their underlying issues with energy and determination we will never achieve significant reductions in reoffending.

The remit of the Commission was restricted to those women already in the criminal justice system. We heard over and over again from those we met about the importance of prevention and early intervention. Although early years was not part of the Commission’s remit, we strongly supported the prioritisation of evidence based programmes for parents and young children. We need to intervene now to prevent the next generation of women and male offenders.

In carrying out our remit, we tried to make pragmatic recommendations that will improve outcomes not only for women offenders, but also for the communities affected by the offences these women commit. At all times, we kept the voice of the victim in our ear. Ultimately this is about keeping the public safe. The evidence we were presented with showed that women are more likely than men to:

•    be of lower risk to public safety
•    be in prison for dishonesty offences
•    be placed on remand
•    have higher rates of mental health problems
•    have drug problems
•    have histories of physical and sexual abuse and victimisation
•    have dependant children.

The evidence also showed that certain factors are stronger predictors of reoffending in women than men. These are:

•    dysfunctional family relationships;
•    poverty, deprivation and debt;
•    unresolved accommodation, childcare and welfare issues;
•    the role played by criminal peers and partners; and
•    drug abuse.

This led us to conclude that it is critical that the criminal justice system provides a gender responsive approach to women offenders.
Our recommendations were women specific, because that is what we were asked to look at. However, some of our recommendations may also be of benefit to male offenders. Indeed, there are probably sound economic and practical reasons for some of our recommendations to be applied across the whole offender population.

Our findings
Turning to what we found during the lifetime of our Commission we made enquiries about the low use of community disposals in Scotland in contrast to the mushrooming short term custodial sentences. We were aware that in general most community payback sentences were designed around male offenders although a few female designed projects were beginning to emerge.

We visited some excellent women specific community projects, such as the 218 Service in Glasgow and the Willow Project in Edinburgh, which you will all be familiar with.  

We also heard about gender specific projects in Northern Ireland and the Women’s Centres in England and Wales, which were set up following the publication of Baroness Corston’s report in 2007.

We visited the Community Integration Unit at Aberdeen Prison, which houses a small number of women nearing the end of their sentence. There we were struck by the positive relationships which existed between staff and prisoners and the culture of self responsibility. Programmes were directed at helping women develop important life skills to enable them to return to their community and live a crime free life.

All of this helped persuade us that where services are specifically designed to meet the offending and rehabilitation needs of women offenders, they can be effective in reducing reoffending, as well as achieving improvements in drug and alcohol use and health and well being.

However, these types of services are the exception rather than the norm in Scotland. Historically the criminal justice system has developed around the characteristics of male offenders due to their larger number and higher risk profiles.

The result is inconsistent service provision at every stage of the criminal justice system. Access is, more often than not, dependent on which local authority a woman lives or her personal circumstances.

Where programmes and services are available, there is no nationally agreed basket of performance indicators to measure success. So it is not always clear what works and what does not work to reduce reoffending.

We were also told that there is no mechanism to share good practice and spread innovation.

It seemed to the Commission that this situation is exacerbated by the existing funding arrangements which favour activity over outcomes, and the short term nature of funding, which encourages unnecessary competitiveness within the third sector.  

Linked to this, we also heard concerns from practitioners about a grossly cluttered landscape. According to our estimates there are over 200 public, private and third sector bodies involved in the planning and delivery of community justice services in Scotland.

We heard conflicting evidence about the added value of Community Justice Authorities, and although they have been in place for over 5 years, there has not yet been an independent assessment of their effectiveness.

The recent report by the Scottish Public Audit Committee highlighted that there is no national performance framework in place, so each Community Justice Authority in Scotland is reporting to the Scottish Government against its own targets.

The government has strategic and policy responsibility for community justice.  But unlike the prison service, it does not have operational responsibility. This creates a leadership vacuum at the top, with no one organisation responsible for the strategic and operational delivery of offender services in the community.
In the Commission’s view, despite the best efforts of everyone involved – and there is some excellent work going on locally – the existing structural, funding and working practices in Scotland inhibit greatly the potential to reduce reoffending for women offenders and undermines confidence in the efficacy of community disposals for sentencers and the public.

The inconsistency of service provision for women offenders is also mirrored to some extent across the prison estate. We heard that many of the throughcare services at Cornton Vale are provided by third sector organisations and the planning capabilities of these organisations are often hindered by the uncertainty of short term funding.

The National Prison
We visited Cornton Vale on a number of occasions. We fully supported Chief Inspector Brigadier Hugh Monro’s observations and recommendations in both his 2009 report and follow up inspection in 2011.  

Cornton Vale prison is not fit for purpose.

Overcrowding has caused significant problems for the management and staff and has inhibited opportunities to rehabilitate women and reduce reoffending on release. The estate is incapable of providing a safe and productive environment for inmates and makes life hell for the staff whose constant preoccupation is to prevent prisoners self harming.

The mental health needs of women are not being addressed adequately, there are high levels of self harm and there is a lack of constructive and meaningful activity. Prison Officers found it very challenging to deal with women prisoners and explained that no one wanted to work there and usually did so on promotion moving on when they could.

We were also told about the difficulties associated with the location of Cornton Vale, especially for women on remand or serving short sentences who find it difficult to maintain links with their children and liaise with local services that will be needed on release. We heard about an 8 hour journey for a 3 minute court appearance in Inverness. This is simply unacceptable in this day and age of video conferencing technology.

We appreciated that the staff at Cornton Vale were doing the best they could under difficult circumstances but we felt that leadership and funding for women offenders needed to be urgently prioritised by the Scottish Prison Service.

In undertaking our remit we looked at why the number of women in prison had increased. We noted the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research’s report into the matter and actively sought the view of practitioners, offenders and members of the judiciary. We found no evidence to suggest that the courts displayed a bias against women. Indeed, we were persuaded that sentencers in the main strive to keep women out of prison. Persistent breaches of bail, failure to attend meetings and breaches of community sentences by reoffending or failure to comply with the order seem to characterise those women on remand or serving short sentences. All were features consistent with the chaotic life circumstances of many and the drug or alcohol fuelled compulsion driving the dominant picture of persistent acquisitive crime.

However, a number of practitioners did express dismay at the apparent reluctance of some Sheriffs, local judges, to engage in meaningful discussion about service provision. In contrast, we also heard about Sheriffs who visited their local community based criminal justice services and found it very valuable. We were told that very few judges actually visit the prison.

We heard about the success of the problem solving approach within drug and domestic violence courts in Scotland. Informed, focused engagement between the sentencer and the offender, supported by a multi-disciplinary team, was found to result in higher compliance rates with community orders than an approach where the sentencer is not as involved with the management of the sentence.

Sentencers also suggested to us that although a full Criminal justice Social Work Report is required in some cases, in many cases a truncated report would suffice and may reduce delays which the increased bureaucracy in sentencing has brought about.

Moving on to our recommendations. Firstly, we were convinced that there needs to be major redesign of the existing criminal justice services in Scotland if we are to tackle women offenders more effectively.
Community Justice Centres
Therefore, we recommended that Community Justice Centres are established for women offenders throughout Scotland. These ‘one stop shops’ based on 218, Willow and the Women’s Centres in England should provide robust interventions and services to reduce reoffending and bring about behavioural change.

The Centres would supervise and manage women diverted from prosecution, offenders on court or bail orders, as well as providing services such as addiction, housing and education to address the root causes of offending. Women will also be taught life skills such as cooking, parenting, hygiene and money management.

Located in the centres would be multi-disciplinary teams which might include criminal justice social work, health professional and possibly drug workers and prosecutors all under one roof. This would ensure offending interventions and community punishments are co-ordinated, reduce duplication of effort and make more efficient use of resources. Key workers and mentors for women would also work out of these centres and maintain a continuing relationship with those women in custody. Working practices would be out reaching in nature reflecting the chaotic lifestyle of many offenders.

It is important to stress that we are not suggesting new custom made buildings, or hundreds of extra staff, but instead that more imaginative use is made of the offices, staff and resources already available.

The establishment of Community Justice Centres across Scotland should address the lack of women specific services and inconsistent provision, and build  judicial and public confidence in alternatives to custody.

We also recommended that all women offenders at risk of reoffending or custody have a mentor, and that this service is co-ordinated by the Community Justice Centres. The mentor’s role would be to work intensively and persistently with a woman to force her to turn up for programmes and appointments and comply with her court order.

 We heard about mentors repeatedly contacting women in person, by phone and text and not giving up until the woman engages with them. Mentors could be from the third sector or volunteers from the local community and would be appropriately trained and supervised.
Supported accommodation
A key issue highlighted to the Commission by practitioners and women offenders was the lack of suitable accommodation, especially on release from prison. One young woman I spoke to said that she would rather sleep under a bridge than stay in a hostel where she feared for her life because of the high levels of drug abuse and violence.

We are aware that some supported accommodation for offenders is available, but it is limited. This is despite the fact that a lack of stable, secure housing increases the likelihood of reoffending. Therefore, we recommended that supported accommodation should be more widely available for women offenders. It need not be costly and could be provided to a woman in her own home.

Mental health
I mentioned earlier that women offenders experience high levels of mental health problems ranging from anxiety, depression, borderline personality disorder to schizophrenia.

We heard that the small number of female offenders who have severe and enduring mental health illness are on the whole managed effectively in the criminal justice system. But more needs to be done for those who may not require psychiatric treatment. Those women at the lower end of the spectrum often go unidentified and untreated.

That is why we recommended that mental health training for police, prison officers, criminal justice social workers and the voluntary sector must be widely available with ongoing support and supervision.

We  also recommended that mental health services and approaches should be developed in such a way that facilitates women with borderline personality disorder to be able to access them. An urgent review of the provision and resourcing of such services is required.

Turning to the other parts of the criminal justice system. The police, prosecution service and judiciary could, we believed, each play a greater role in improving outcomes for communities and women offenders.

Existing disposals to divert women from prosecution and remand in Scotland are not being fully utilised and could also be more women specific.

We recommended that the police are given new powers to divert women offenders from prosecution by issuing a conditional caution directing women offenders to attend their local Community Justice Centre.

We also recommended that Prosecutor’s Work Orders, which require offenders to undertake unpaid work of between 10 and 50 hours are rolled out across Scotland and that Procurators Fiscal are given new powers to impose a composite diversion order which could include both unpaid work and rehabilitative elements.

Bail supervision
In addition, we recommended that for women offenders bail supervision should be combined with attendance at the Community Justice Centres and/or mentoring and supported accommodation. The aim is to enable women to comply more effectively with bail orders and provide Procurators Fiscals and Sheriffs with the confidence to release on supervised bail rather than place women on remand.

We are also recommending that new sentencing options are introduced to allow suspended sentences and sentences to be part custody and part community based. Judges should also have the powers to regularly check on  an offender’s progress while in prison and the community.  

In addition, rather than adjourning a case for 3 weeks for a Criminal Justice Social Work Report, a multi-disciplinary team  from the Community Justice Centre should be available to the court to produce ‘Rapid Reports’ on the day of conviction or shortly afterwards. These would allow immediate action to be taken to address offending behaviour and payback to the community. Sending a drug addicted or mentally unwell accused off on Bail for a number of weeks is a recipe for disaster. Offenders will not change overnight and such in built delays set the individual up to fail – a factor to which the wholly distorted remand population is testament.

To broaden the evidence base already available on the effectiveness of problem solving courts, such as drug courts, we recommended that a pilot problem solving court for offenders with multiple and complex needs should be established.

Additional training and development opportunities in sentencing, desistance from offending and visiting prisons and local criminal justice social work services should also be made available for the judiciary. Overall judges need to become much more engaged in the development and nature of sentences.

I mentioned earlier that we were of the view that Cornton Vale is not fit for purpose.  We recommended that it should be replaced as soon as possible with a smaller specialist prison for those women serving a statutorily defined long term sentence and those who present a serious danger to the public and we set out basic specifications for such an institution. A visitor’s centre with outside play areas should be provided.

For other women on remand or serving short sentences we recommended that they are held in local prisons suitably adapted for their needs and that future design and services should be structured to develop independent living skills. This should help women maintain relationships with their family and children, and improve liaison with local communities and local services that is critical if women are to be successfully integrated back into communities.

In order to help drive through these changes we recommended that an independent non-executive member is appointed to the Scottish Prison Service Board and given the specific remit of women offenders. I am also delighted to note that the new Chief Executive of the Scottish Prison Service has taken on the lead role personally and has been extremely energetic in setting about responding to our recommendations.

Structural reform
All of the recommendations I have described could be implemented within the existing systems in Scotland. But the Commission was strongly of the view that the disparate nature of the arrangements that are in place for dealing with women in the criminal justice system in Scotland would make this difficult.

As I highlighted earlier, there is a lack of strategic leadership and accountability in the delivery of offender services in the community; a cluttered landscape; inconsistent service provision, short term funding and difficulties in measuring impact.

Given this, we were of the view that a radical reform of existing structural, funding and working practices was required.

We carefully considered the structures used to deliver criminal justice social work in other countries. We also spoke to officials in some of those countries about the benefits and challenges of different models, for example a national probation service or joint probation and prison service.

We were mindful of the need for any new structures to take account of Scotland’s unique cultural, social and political make up. And that change must be driven by how best services can achieve positive outcomes.

We concluded that there are currently significant barriers to the creation of a joint criminal justice social work and prison service in Scotland. However, we were persuaded of the clear benefits of a model where criminal justice social work operates as a single national service.

We heard arguments for and against such an approach. It was suggested that a national service would disconnect criminal justice social work from the mainstream local authority services that offenders need to access, for example housing, employment, children and families etc.

We did not accept this argument.

We heard no evidence from those countries that operate a single service, such as Northern Ireland, to suggest it had resulted in any loss of connectedness. Indeed, some practitioners we spoke to argued that bringing all 32 criminal justice social work teams into one service could potentially increase its influence with non criminal justice providers leading to a more integrated service.

We acknowledged that any change can have a temporary disruptive effect, but we were strongly of the view that the benefits of a single service significantly outweigh any disadvantages.

 As I observed earlier, there have been 10 previous reports across the UK on the issue of women offenders, yet none have been implemented in full. Urgent and radical action is required in Scotland to stop the female prison population doubling yet again in the next 10 years.

That is why we recommend that a new national service, called the Community Justice Service, is established in Scotland to commission, provide and manage adult offender services in the community.

A single service would result in:
•    Better and more coherent opportunities for achieving desistence across the whole offender pathway to reduce the number of victims and make communities safer
•    Clearer lines of accountability for performance
•    Consistency of access to, and quality of, services – avoiding fragmentation and temporariness
•    Capacity to deploy resources and expertise flexibly according to need and enhance resilience of services
•    Better information and data management systems to assess impact of services
•    A united and strong professional cohort to represent criminal justice social work.

The new Community Justice Service would be designed in such a way to ensure local liaison and delivery.

The professional skills of social work are critical to the success of the service and therefore they have a key role to play. We also envisage that other agencies, such as the Prosecution Service, police, health and third sector would second staff to the Service which would improve cross agency working and collaboration and help provide a seamless and integrated service to offenders.

Although our work only considered the issue of women offenders, we are of the view that it makes economic and practical sense for the new Service to cover the whole offending population in Scotland.

This is clearly a time of significant financial constraint in the public sector. The creation of a new Service and the other recommendations in this report could be achieved largely through reconfiguration of the significant resources (money, staff and buildings) that are already invested in this area.


Keenly aware of the fate of reports that had gone before, we built into our recommendations a request for the Justice Secretary to report within six months and annually thereafter on progress in the implementation of the recommendations. He has agreed to this and in his report to the Scottish Parliament this month demonstrated evidence of very considerable early action to address the recommendations and a sincere determination to reduce the population of women in prison.

He has taken the lead on this issue himself and has agreed that 24 of our 27 recommendations will be implemented. The remaining 3 are the subject of detailed consultation.

Following a consultation exercise by the Scottish Prison Service Cornton Vale prison is to replaced with a smaller specialist national prison at HM Inverclyde which will fully meet the recommendations of the Commission and new regional women’s units will be developed in Edinburgh, Aberdeen as well as the current unit in Inverness. In the meantime upgrading work will be carried out in Cornton Vale, a visitors centre created and a national video links project commenced.

SPS have also developed a new 3 day training course on working with women offenders.

Mentoring provision is to be established across Scotland and extended funding has been made available for this purpose.
The Justice Secretary has agreed that the status quo in commissioning, providing and managing adult offender services in the community is no longer an option and a consultation paper will be produced in December with options for redesigning the Community Justice system.
A pilot problem solving court will be set up in Glasgow by May 2013 along with a new diversion from prosecution scheme and the recommendations on Mental Health services are now contained in the Government’s Mental Health Strategy for 2012 – 2015.

Following our recommendation on the availability of benefits immediately on release from prison, the Justice Secretary has met with Lord Freud and efforts are being made in collaboration with the Department for Works and Pensions to establish a pilot at Cornton Vale.

A report on supported accommodation is expected this month and further pilots are being explored by the Scottish Government with the charity Turning Point on support in a tenacy.

Two pilot Community Justice Centres are to be established from this years funding and discussions are on going with the partner agencies.


The Prison Reform Trust’s Women’s Justice Taskforce observed in 2010 how it is all too easy for vulnerable women to slide off the political agenda and return to being a neglected minority. For those who may be willing and ready to pounce with the accusation that prison is too soft I can assure you that it is a demoralising and sobering experience to actually go there and to spend some time in a cell with women whose broken teeth and scarred inner arms are often symbolic of  a more profound broken spirit and self loathing. It is difficult to punish someone who punishes herself so readily.

Anticipating some scepticism from the media in Scotland I invited the BBC journalists and the editors of all of the main newspapers to come with me to the prison before they wrote about it. The contrast between the chirpy conversation as we entered the prison and the sullen silence as we left was eloquent of the impact. No one should sentence anyone to imprisonment until they have been there themselves and understand what can and cannot be achieved there. Neither should politicians pontificate confidently before acquiring such detailed knowledge and understanding.

Prison should not be the default route for support for damaged women committing lower level crimes but as Dame Anne Owers said in her lecture:
As the closure of the large mental hospitals showed it is not enough simply to shut down or reduce places that provide inappropriate responses to problematic human behaviour. It is also necessary to invest sufficiently and appropriately in the alternative.
In a system that has been built round the criminogenic needs of male offenders and their behavioural patterns there must be immediate and radical action to address the correct approach for women. If we are to break the damaging cycle of deprivation, alcohol, drug abuse and crime that action must be now. For those children of such women the crushing impact of a mother’s imprisonment will also be life long in its effect. Too many of the prisoners in Cornton Vale saw their own mothers in there before them.

It is encumbent on all in the criminal justice system and those who work with it to strive to prevent these sad legacies being passed on to yet another generation of children. It is for government to abandon short term political expediency and set to work on reforming women’s justice.