Plans to build a new women’s prison to replace Scotland’s only all-female jail have been scrapped, the Justice Secretary has announced.
Michael Matheson said the Government needed to be “bolder” and take a “more radical and ambitious approach” to dealing with female offenders.
He has been considering proposals to establish a purpose built, female prison at Inverclyde to replace the existing Cornton Vale jail near Stirling since becoming Justice Secretary last year.
He announced the new jail would not be going ahead as he visited a specialist centre in Glasgow that aims to prevent reoffending by offering women support for problems such addiction, and mental and physical health issues.
Mr Matheson said: “When it comes to the justice system, we must be smarter with the choices we make and be more sophisticated in the way in which we deal with female offenders.”
He stated: “Whilst it is for the courts to decide who receives a custodial sentence, I believe that too many low level female offenders are sent to prison. I want to take a new approach in dealing with these types of offenders and provide them with the best possible support to help turn their lives around.”
Mr Matheson said: ” Since taking up post as Justice Secretary, I have been looking closely at proposals for a new prison for female offenders at Inverclyde. I’ve also listened carefully to the views expressed by a number of key interest groups.
“I’ve decided that the current plans for a prison for women in Inverclyde should not go ahead. It does not fit with my vision of how a modern and progressive country should be addressing female offending. We need to be bolder and take a more radical and ambitious approach in Scotland.”
Earlier this month Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy had urged the Scottish Government to think again on plans for the new “super prison”, saying ministers should instead set up, smaller local centres to help female offenders
Mr Murphy said at the time: ” Cornton Vale is the most violent prison in Scotland and to simply plan to build a modern version of Cornton Vale is planning for failure.”
Former Lord Advocate Dame Elish Angioni branded Cornton Vale ”a miserable place” where some prisoners lived in ”antediluvian and appalling” conditions.
Dame Elish, who chaired a commission set up by the Scottish Government to examine how best to deal with female offenders, recommended in 2012 that there should be a smaller, specialist prison for long-term and high-risk prisoners, as well as regional units to hold those serving shorter sentences and those on remand.
Mr Matheson said the former Lord Advocate had made “a number of important recommendations, recognising that female offenders have very different needs to their male counterparts and require very specific support”.
The Justice Secretary said: ” We know that women offenders are far less likely to be a danger to the public compared with men.We also know that the families and children of female offenders are more likely to go off the rails and offend themselves if mothers are jailed miles away from home. This turns into a vicious circle, affecting future generations, and is doing nothing to address reoffending.
“I believe we should be investing in smaller regional and community-based custodial facilities across the country, rather than a large new prison for women. This approach would be more closely aligned with the vision set out by Dame Elish. It also demonstrates the Scottish Government’s commitment to tackling inequalities.
“We need to ensure that links to the family and community can be maintained, whilst targeted work is undertaken to address the specific issue which is fuelling the crime such as alcohol, drugs or mental health issues.”
He said the 218 centre, which is run by Turning Point Scotland and the Glasgow Addiction Service, was an example of ” exactly the type of sophisticated approach that I would like to see as part of our plans for the way in which we look after women in custody”.
Mr Matheson said: ” I share the vision of Dame Elish that we need to transform services for women so that we can help them break the cycle of reoffending and they can start making a positive contribution to society.”
Martin Cawley, the chief executive of Turning Point Scotland, said: ” Community-based alternatives to custody, like 218, support women to make positive changes in their lives by providing a safe, structured environment to help them improve health and wellbeing and address many of the underlying issues that contribute towards their offending, such as substance misuse issues.
“Many of the women using the service have a range of complex needs such as addiction, poor mental or physical health and trauma issues. By addressing these underlying issues, it reduces the likelihood of them reoffending in future.
He added: ” Turning Point Scotland 218’s approach is backed up by an independent evaluation carried out by London South Bank University and the recommendations of the Commission on Women Offenders, chaired by Dame Elish Angiolini.”
Labour’s deputy leader, Kezia Dugdale, said: “This is a victory for campaign groups, vulnerable families and simple common sense. As Jim Murphy and I have made clear, all of the evidence shows that locking up vulnerable women has a terrible effect on families and children. We’re glad the SNP have backed Scottish Labour’s call to scrap the super-prison.
“We should be looking to do things differently in 21st-century Scotland and this is a step in the right direction.
“This U-turn from the Scottish Government was the right thing to do; we must continue to reform our justice system so that it punishes crime, not vulnerable families.”
Liberal Democrat justice spokeswoman Alison McInnes said: “I am pleased that the Scottish Government has listened to the voices of reformers and called a halt to its plans to build HMP Inverclyde.
“The proposed replacement prison was too big and in the wrong place. It ignored the recommendations of the Commission on Women Offenders, which called for a small specialist prison for the most dangerous and serious offenders, coupled with community justice centres around the country and small local prison units.
“Choices made now will define how we deal with women offenders for decades to come. The new Justice Secretary has made the right decision in halting his predecessor’s misguided plans.”
SNP MSP Christina McKelvie said: “The decision to move towards community-based facilities for female offenders is a welcome one that will help to reduce re-offending and help to support families.
“Since the publication of the Angiolini report in 2012 there has been a clear recognition that we need to do things differently and today’s decision is a welcome victory for those of us who have campaigned on this issue throughout that time.
“Female offenders have different needs to male offenders and that is something that we need to be better at recognising and accommodating in Scotland’s justice system.”
John Scott QC, convenor of the Howard League for Penal Reform in Scotland, said: ” Mr Matheson has done exactly as he promised – despite the short time since he took office and the urgency of the situation. He has reviewed all the evidence and submissions, and ensured that the final decision was the right one.
“It is a bold decision and will be recognised as such by all those who have voiced their concerns about HMP Inverclyde.
“In deciding not to proceed with the proposal to build a new women’s prison at Inverclyde, the Cabinet Secretary is opening up the potential for greater use of community-based solutions for women who offend and women who are at risk of offending. This will benefit all of us.
“By dealing appropriately and effectively with this vulnerable group of women, Scotland will be a safer place.”
Maggie Mellon, from Edinburgh Women for Independence, which campaigned against the prison, said: “It’s fantastic news, and we congratulate the Justice Secretary, Michael Matheson, for making this bold decision.
“We look forward to building a different and more progressive justice system for women in Scotland.
“We would also like to congratulate Mr Matheson for listening to those opposed to the new prison and for having the courage to change course on this issue.
“Despite undoubted pressure, he has shown courage, confidence and principles to do the right thing for some of Scotland’s most vulnerable women.”
Scottish Green MSP Alison Johnstone said she strongly supported the decision.
She said: ” Creating a single, massive jail would have gone completely against all the evidence. Instead, we have an opportunity to look at more appropriate community-based solutions.
“We must remember the terrible impact that imprisonment of women has on families, and a more dispersed approach gives a better chance of striking the right balance between reducing reoffending and providing public protection.
“I hope today’s announcement signals a broader determination to reduce the worrying size of the female prison population in Scotland. And given that most women in prison have complex needs, often due to abuse and health problems, that must be the focus as we move forward.”