Women are suffering in a prison system which has never been fit for purpose

It’s almost a decade since former Lord Advocate Elish Angiolini published a radical report calling for an overhaul of how Scotland treats women in the justice system.

It was a progressive and humane approach which recognised most women who are discarded to our jails are far more victims than perpetrators.

Seven in 10 of them will have suffered a mental illness, many will have been sexually or physically abused and been victims of ­coercive control.

Seven in 10 of female prisoners will have suffered a mental illness, many will have been sexually or physically abused and been victims of ­coercive control

More than half will have substance addictions.

Angiolini’s report came too late for the 10 inmates who killed themselves in their Cornton Vale cells between 1995 and 2001 but it brought hope for others still locked in the system.

Tragically it was a false hope for too many, including Katie Allan, a Glasgow University student who took her own life in Polmont while serving a 16-month sentence for hitting a teenager in her car while over the legal drink-drive limit.

Katie at no point abdicated responsibility for her actions but jailing her was purely a punitive action and nothing to do with rehabilitation.

Despite clear evidence of her vulnerability, she was harangued and strip searched, she had lost 80 per cent of her hair through stress-induced alopecia and had self-harmed, yet had not been assessed as a suicide risk when she was found dead in her cell in June 2018.

She had come from a secure loving home and was not typical of the women who find themselves in the justice system but like many of her fellow inmates, she needed protection and help.

Angiolini took into account the chaotic and brutal realities of the lives of the majority of women in prison and she wanted them removed from cells and pulled from the mire, to be helped in
our communities.

But this potentially seminal moment for our prison system has yet to materialise.

Some elements of her report have been implemented, but we will have to wait until April 2022 for Cornton Vale to be ­demolished. It currently houses only around 84 women with the majority held at Polmont but these women are some of the most vulnerable in the system and they are still not being given the treatment they need.

In 2018 and 2019, the Council of Europe’s anti-torture committee (CPT) in 2018 and 2019, described conditions in Scotland’s ­overcrowded prisons as “an emergency situation”.

And it referred to the mental anguish of female prisoners, citing the example of one woman who had unravelled to the point she had bitten her skin down to the bone, while another had set fire to her own hair.

The reports should have been treated as a wake-up call but this week it emerged, vital ­recommendations have not been implemented three years later.

A new report by the National Preventive Mechanism (NPM) watchdog warned that many of the serious concerns of the CPT “remain unaddressed”.

Crucially the NPM found female prisoners with severe mental health disorders are not being transferred to an appropriate psychiatric facility.

In 2012, I visited Cornton Vale and in fairness to the staff, it was not their fault they were ill equipped to deal with women in their care who needed a ­psychiatrist, not a jailer.

Most were there for repeat petty crimes. They were on short sentences but for long enough to lose their homes and, tragically, their children.

One committed crimes on the outside because the inside protected her from the domestic violence waiting for her at the prison gates.

Ten previous reports on ­tackling female offending had been ignored and left to gather dust before Angiolini’s ­recommendations were published.

And still, women are suffering in a prison system which has never been fit for purpose.

Most of the women behind bars in Scotland are not a danger to society. Our prison system, like so many other factors in their lives, is a danger to them.

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