Fit only for the bulldozer: Scotland’s prison for women


By Kenneth Roy

At last the national scandal of women in prison in Scotland is being seriously addressed. The Scottish Review understands that when the Commission on Women Offenders chaired by Dame Elish Angiolini reports on 17 April, its findings are likely to be far-reaching in their implications.

The commission will criticise Scotland’s judges for sending too many women to prison for minor offences and will call for a more enlightened approach to the sentencing and treatment of women offenders. Its main practical recommendation will be the demolition of Scotland’s only all-women prison, Cornton Vale, near Stirling, and its replacement by a smaller unit, better resourced, on a different, more accessible site.

The cabinet secretary for justice, Kenny MacAskill, set up the commission in response to a detailed indictment of Cornton Vale by the Inspectorate of Prisons in June 2011. The inspectorate found that, despite previous warnings, the prison remained an ‘unacceptably poor establishment with significant failings across all key areas of provision’. Kenny MacAskill added his own critical observations. He told MSPs that half the children of women who are jailed in Scotland will end up in prison themselves, and expressed dissatisfaction that, although crime is going down, the number of female inmates continues to rise – by a staggering 87% in the last decade.

The human context of this disgrace is worth examining. Research studies have given us a profile of a typical female offender in Scotland. She is a mother, poorly educated, unemployed, in receipt of state benefits and in debt. She has problems over housing. She will have experienced some form of abuse or psychological distress. She misuses alcohol or drugs or both. She may well have been in local authority care as a child and she may have lost the care of her own children.

Research also tells us that most female offenders commit less serious crimes than men and have fewer previous convictions. Yet they are held in custody for minor offences and a significant number are needlessly detained on remand awaiting sentence.

The official inquiry into the deaths of Arlene and Kelly was a whitewash. It found that there were no defects in the system, nor any reasonable precautions which could have been taken to prevent their deaths.

There is also the issue, in which this magazine has long taken a special interest, of the imprisonment of young women, including children.

As long ago as 1996, the Scottish Review exposed the shocking background to the cases of two 17-year-old girls, Kelly Holland and Arlene Elliot, who committed suicide in Cornton Vale within a few days of each other. Both were mentally unwell. Arlene – ‘a pathetic young girl’ as one social worker described her – had a history of self-harm and was experiencing auditory hallucinations. All her symptoms indicated a serious psychotic illness requiring specialist treatment in hospital. Instead she was held in an adult prison and deprived of the psychiatric care she desperately needed.

We discovered that three quarters of the women in Cornton Vale were on medication of some sort; Arlene was prescribed heavy doses of largactil, a drug which induces mental dullness. It was acknowledged too late that she had been over-sedated: too late because by then she was dead. The most appalling feature of her case was that, when a consultant psychiatrist from Gartnavel Hospital took the trouble to visit the prison to see Arlene, he was refused admission and told to come back at a time more convenient to the Cornton Vale authorities. He would almost certainly have advised her urgent transfer to hospital.

The case of Kelly Holland, a bright girl whose personality changed abruptly, was equally disturbing. She was arrested by the police many times, mostly for breaches of the peace; a social inquiry report concluded that she was traumatised by a deep-rooted anxiety which she was unable to share. The procurator fiscal at Hamilton became so concerned for her mental welfare that, when the police charged her with disorderly conduct for attempting to throw herself out of a window, he refused to prosecute and insisted that she see a doctor. The doctor decided that she was not suffering from any mental disorder and soon she was back in Cornton Vale for the last time. She too hanged herself.

The official inquiry into the deaths of Arlene and Kelly was a whitewash. It found that there were no defects in the system, nor any reasonable precautions which could have been taken to prevent their deaths. All the evidence we examined suggested otherwise.

This is a failed institution. It was failing then. It is failing now. If our information is correct, and the commission headed by the former lord advocate is about to propose the demolition of Cornton Vale Prison and its replacement by a smaller unit with a rehabilitative emphasis, Kenny MacAskill should accept the recommendation without delay. He should also look sympathetically at the commission’s other proposals, which are likely to include retraining for sentencing judges; greater use of supervised bail, cautions and suspended sentences; and a much-improved after-care service.

The SNP government, with its admirable record on a range of social policies, now has a clear opportunity to reform the treatment of women offenders. It should seize it.


Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review