14 June 2011

Shocking HMP Cornton Vale report...

Today, the Scottish Government has published a profoundly grim report from Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons for Scotland, Hugh Monro, on conditions in HMP Cornton Vale. Monro's report is dated for the 14th of April and summarises findings from a supplementary, follow-up inspection of the women's prison at the beginning of February, after a full inspection in 2009 identified a number of pervasive problems with the institution's professional culture, its atmosphere and its practices. Monro's findings in today's report are deeply concerning. I'd encourage those interested to read his full findings. However, the Inspector's opening summary lays out issues of major concern, including overcrowding, the condition of the prison environment, the mental health of inmates, activity (and want of activity) for prisoners - and the number of female prisoners presently incarcerated. Here is what Monro had to say.

2.2 Cornton Vale, Scotland’s national facility for female prisoners, was inspected in September 2009 and the report of that inspection was published in January 2010. The report contained an unusually high number of recommendations and points for action. It was an unfavourable report which required timely action by both SPS HQ and the Governor of Cornton Vale to remedy some serious shortcomings. A follow up inspection designed to measure progress took place in February 2011.

2.3 This report sets out the conclusions of that follow up inspection by measuring progress on the areas of Good Practice, the Recommendations and the Points for Action made during the 2009 Inspection. This Overview comments on some of the main issues from the perspective of the follow up inspection.

2.4 When I inspected Cornton Vale in September 2009, it was not providing the care and attention that Scotland’s vulnerable women prisoners needed: nor was there sufficient purposeful activity and rehabilitative work available for the rest of the population. Most of all, Cornton Vale required good and strong strategic and local leadership to change the culture of the prison, to improve staff training and to improve the treatment of prisoners. I set out below where progress has been made on these and other important issues.

Comment on The Broad Issues


2.5 In the 2009 Inspection I set the scene by stating how overcrowded Cornton Vale was during the inspection: 399 against a Design Capacity of 375. I stated that “Cornton Vale is in a state of crisis and an ever-increasing prison population is one of the main causes; indeed many of the criticisms I have are directly related to this situation.”

2.6 During the follow up inspection the population had reduced to 385, but in my opinion this is still far too high. Indeed I take issue with the Design Capacity of 375. Only by reducing the prison population to 300 or less would the prison’s present resources better match the individual and aggregated needs of the prisoners and allow more quality time to be spent on addressing them. Cornton Vale just cannot cope taking ever-increasing numbers of prisoners.

2.7 In this respect, I conclude that the SPS should review the Design Capacity for Cornton Vale to a level consistent with the capacity of the infrastructure to cope and in line with ensuring conditions of basic decency for the population. The population also needs to be reduced as soon as is practicably possible to no more than 300 until the prison can be rebuilt to house women prisoners in accommodation which is fit for purpose. In the meantime, options for housing the extra female prisoners elsewhere in better conditions should be examined as a temporary measure. Any move, however, should not be to the detriment of access to appropriate work, interventions and family visits.

Treatment and Conditions...

2.8 The treatment of prisoners and the conditions in which they live are just not sufficiently good. This was a theme in the 2009 Inspection and except for minor progress in repainting some house blocks, conditions have either remained much the same or failed to improve. Indeed in some areas, such as the Mother and Baby Unit, they have worsened. The very poor access to toilets for women in Bruce and Younger Houses has continued and the dignity, safety, infection control and health issues associated with this unacceptable situation are even more stark than in 2009.

2.9 I also assess that staff/prisoner relationships have deteriorated. This may be as a result of low staff morale and a general malaise which seems to pervade many, though not all, staff groups. In a number of prisoner focus groups there was a recurring theme that staff were not always trusted and this was most obvious in relation to staff handling of prison complaint forms which was perceived by the women to be suspect. In addition to this, prisoners complained to Inspectors about a culture of swearing and shouting among staff and of name calling. This caused some women to feel angry and embarrassed in front of others but reluctant to make formal complaints for fear of reprisal. The practice described by women in relation to shouting and swearing was confirmed by staff to whom we spoke.

2.10 In examining and addressing the negative aspects of the prison’s staff culture, the SPS also requires to revisit the gender balance within the uniformed staff group. Inspectors found there are too many occasions when there are insufficient female staff readily available to attend to female-specific issues such as searching. There is also a need to ensure that prisoners can have easy access to female officers and managers should they need to do so for sensitive and personal matters.

2.11 Overall, I conclude that insufficient progress has been made to improve both physical conditions and the quality of the regime. The treatment of prisoners must be improved by the exercise of stronger leadership and the introduction of effective mechanisms for providing assurance and proper governance. It is encouraging to note that subsequent to the inspection additional Unit and First Line Managers are to be deployed to the prison.

Mental Health...

2.12 The mental health issues affecting significant numbers of female prisoners held in Cornton Vale continue to be a source of concern. In terms of numbers and complexity these issues are amongst the most serious in any prison in Scotland. Women with mental ill health and serious personality disorders need a therapeutic regime which provides a variety of different elements aimed at addressing the worsening effect of imprisonment, whilst at the same time preparing them for an eventual return to the community.

2.13 Nowhere is the mental health issue more stark than in the euphemistically-named ‘Management Suite’ in Ross House. This segregation area is more colloquially known as the ‘back cells’. These cells are utterly depressing and are an unsuitable environment in which to hold very vulnerable girls and women. It is my view that these cells are used primarily as a control measure. Staff are insufficiently trained to deal with the women held there.

2.14 I conclude that the treatment of vulnerable women with mental health issues must improve. I want to see appropriate training for uniformed staff who are required to manage these individuals as well as much wider access to therapeutic activity. Above all I have seen insufficient progress on my previous and important recommendation that every vulnerable woman – including all those who are removed from association for any reason - should have comprehensive multidisciplinary care plans in place which are fully implemented.

Access to Activity...

2.15 The very obvious and real atmosphere of boredom that faces prisoners in much of Cornton Vale has been reported on by my predecessor as well as by me. Far too many women are locked in their cells or house blocks at any one time. Only a minority have access to activity. This situation is not good for mental or physical wellbeing nor indeed for good preparation for release.

2.16 I conclude that the way the regime is run at Cornton Vale must be reviewed with a determination to involve a far higher proportion of women in activities and offending behaviour interventions. This must include short-term prisoners as well as those on remand. For these two prisoner groups in particular, life at Cornton Vale is just far too restrictive, unproductive and lacking in challenge. This is no way to manage female prisoners in Scotland if there is to be any hope of reducing the level and frequency of their offending.

Strategic Priority...

2.17 In summary, I am very disappointed by the lack of progress made at Cornton Vale. In a perfect world Cornton Vale would be re-built and would have staff comprehensively trained in the very specific role of working with women offenders. Additionally, it would have a regime and interventions tailored to the needs of this complex population. Regrettably it will take time to get to that stage and so I urge the SPS to take short term measures now to improve the treatment of prisoners.

2.18 Overall, I conclude that the SPS Board must now put Cornton Vale at the very top of the priority list to address the prison’s serious shortcomings, most obviously a poor regime and culture. Since my inspection the Board has taken certain management measures which show an encouraging sign that they are determined to improve the staff culture at the prison. It is also my view that Cornton Vale should be nominated as a development prison and be rebuilt as soon as is practicably possible in order to improve the very poor conditions. All of this will require support and direction from the Scottish Government.

2.19 Finally, I continue to recommend a single focus for female offenders on the SPS Board.

The Need for a National Strategy to Cope with Growing Female Prisoner Numbers...

2.20 Notwithstanding the concerns I have about Cornton Vale and the very detrimental effects of overcrowding in that prison, there is an equally serious issue to be tackled in a coordinated manner: and that is the burgeoning number of women being sent to prison. A significant proportion of these women are in custody for the first time and overall numbers are placing an intolerable strain on the system. The number of women in custody now is rapidly approaching 500 with Cornton Vale itself regularly holding over 400 women. An overspill of some 60 are held in HMP Greenock and small numbers in HMPs Aberdeen and Inverness. The infrastructure in Cornton Vale cannot adequately cope with the demands placed on it by high numbers and there is now a very real danger of doing more harm than good by sending women into an environment which no longer has the capacity to meet their complex needs.

2.21 I would strongly urge that the problem is tackled collaboratively by the Scottish Government, the Courts and the SPS in order to address existing resource and management issues for female offenders. There is also a need to find practical ways of reducing the number of women in custody so that the SPS can deal fully with those women who present a danger to themselves, to others and to the community.

2.22 Overcrowding in any prison has a hugely negative impact on efforts to change behaviours among offenders and to embed the processes of rehabilitation and preparation for release. It may therefore be that, for example, consideration should be given to capping the population in each prison to ensure that environmental, health and safety and minimum standards of custody, care and opportunity are not eroded to unacceptably low standards.

2.23 I am fully aware of the challenges faced by the Criminal Justice system as a whole in tackling the problem of crime in our communities. We should be wary, however, of making communities potentially less safe by overcrowding our prisons and thus spreading resources too thinly to make any positive difference to offenders’ behaviour in the future. Under such circumstances, there is the potential to have unintended consequences by making offenders worse after their experience of prison rather than better. That is why I urge, as my predecessors have done, that the overcrowding problem is urgently addressed to allow SPS staff to concentrate on the job of working with those offenders who present the greatest risk to the safety of our communities. I conclude that overcrowding is a particularly damaging issue for the female prison population and must be tackled as a matter of priority.



  1. Scottish republic14 June 2011 at 17:28

    """""That is why I urge, as my predecessors have done, that the overcrowding problem is urgently addressed to allow SPS staff to concentrate on the job of working with those offenders who present the greatest risk to the safety of our communities. I conclude that overcrowding is a particularly damaging issue for the female prison population and must be tackled as a matter of priority."""""

    Clearly something has to be done, is another prison being built?

    I was also alarmed to read that many of the women are first time prisoners. Are women still being imprisoned for lesser crimes.

  2. 'I was also alarmed to read that many of the women are first time prisoners. Are women still being imprisoned for lesser crimes.'

    That's a bit of a non sequitur.

    It would be more logical, though not necessarily correct, to deduce that women are less likely to be recidivists and that prison is therefore a more effective deterrent for women than men.

    The reality however is that the majority will be either mad or sad rather than bad.

  3. Salmond in full populist nationalist demagogue mode again.

    What's his game plan here?


  4. I don't see the need for another talking shop when the Equal Opps Committee at the Parliament pretty much told MacAskill what to do 2 years ago.

    I am so annoyed at these basic failures in care, and it looks like nothing is going to be actually done to improve things for a good while to come.

    And, Kenny's comment that conditions at Cornton Vale are an operational matter for the SPS has sent me into a real rage. If he can't take responsibility for this catalogue of failure he should resign.

    Here's my post on the matter:


  5. The SG cannot actually control the decision of courts to send people to jail and in fact in many cases they may send people to jail because they consider that it is the safest option for them. Their lives outside may be so chaotic that there is little alternative.

    Building more prisons is not the answer because in many cases these people do not really belong in prison in the first place.

    To me the underlying issue here - and I know this will sound quite harsh but I think it is the truth - is that many of the women, and indeed the men, who end up in prison are simply not capable of looking after themselves. The fact that we try and pretend that they are is whar leads to many of them ending up in jail.

    That may be because of drink/drugs/mental health issues - though I don't know why we separate drink/drugs problems and mental health issues because very often the reason for drink/drugs issues is an underlying mental health problem.

    We need to look at the whole issue of supporting people and care in the community. I am not saying let's go back to the days where people were locked up in institutions for years on end. But let's recognise that many of these people ought be to in some kind of supervised accommodation because they simply cannot care for themselves. They cause problems for everyone living around them and end up in prison because of their behaviour.

    The whole thrust of always trying to support people with these kinds of problems to live independently has to be re-assessed. It just doesn't work. I come across this quite often in my work where someone will be settled or re-settled in social housing, given a starter pack of household items and then basically left to it and monitored from a distance. Before you know it they are making their neighbours lives hell and they are back in trouble with the police again.

    What we need is proper modern accommodation which is part of the community but where people are supervised. Instead of shutting down all the hostels we should be building new ones which are fit for purpose rather than dumping people in flats - which in itself causes resentment as the other people on the waiting lists see "alchies and druggies and neds" getting prioritised - and leaving them to it. I think a lot of people who have have a professional interest in housing or social work issues also believe this and perhaps it is time they started to speak out. It goes against the grain of current policy but current policy is just plain wrong.

  6. Many of our people have low education, cultural levels and low to no expectations of themselves.
    From this milieu most care workers are recruited.
    And "service users" gathered.

    This wider problem has to be tackled.

    Indy's last paragraph would be a good start.

  7. Scottish republic15 June 2011 at 14:07


    Studies show that women are imprisoned for lesser crimes like shoplifting and one had hoped such practice had ceased but not according to this article.

  8. Scottish Republic if you were a judge and you were faced with a woman found guilty of shoplifting who was a drug user, in an abusive relationship and leading a chaotic lifestyle you might well decide to impose a custodial sentence just to get her away from her abuser and away from the scene.

    It is not necessarily done for punitive reasons. In fact it is most likely done on the basis of the social work report. The fact that Cornton Vale is not able to properly support women like that is inexcusable and needs to be sorted out asap but the long term solution is not to create more prisons, it is to provide properly supervised accommodation on the outside so that such people can be kept on the straight and narrow without the need for jail.

  9. I don't know whether women are imprisoned for lesser crimes, and I'm not sure shoplifting is necessarily a lesser crime than, say, housebreaking anyway. We all have to pay for it. However, I do know that according to SG statisticians "The proportion of males receiving a custodial sentence was higher than the proportion of females sentenced to custody in almost every category of crime and offence" (http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Publications/2011/01/20092640/5, para 5.5.20)so it seems unlikely that the courts are more punitive towards women. Indeed, the same publication goes on to say, in the following paragraph, "The proportion of males who received a short sentence was lower than the proportion of females for many of the crime categories in which relatively higher numbers of both gender were convicted". What I find contemptible is the attitude that the difficulties of prison policy only seem to matter when they affect women, and it is women we are turning our minds to keep out of jail, when by any rational calculation it ought to be men, as there are more of them inside. I'm sure, by the way, that Cornton Vale is a very horrible place; but I don't know if it is any worse than Barlinnie or Peterhead; at least women can wear their own clothing. Still, I've never been to any of those places.

    And Caron, Justice Ministers really aren't responsible for the running of Scottish prisons. When a certain Jim Wallace was Justice Minister, he used to say the same thing. As an example, look at http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/Apps2/Business/PQA/default.aspx?pq=S1W-34940 - though I could have chosen dozens of others. At the time, did you suggest that Jim Wallace should resign, or is it only SNP Ministers who arouse your ire?

  10. Scottish Republic, Am Firinn,

    I don't have data to hand, but can recall reading an analysis (I think from England and Wales) that while more men are locked up more often across offence categories, as all prison statistics bear out, women are more likely than men to be jailed earlier for lesser offences, in the course of their criminal careers. If I have time, I might try and scrounge up the studies.

  11. "while more men are locked up more often across offence categories, as all prison statistics bear out, women are more likely than men to be jailed earlier for lesser offences, in the course of their criminal careers."

    That may well be the case in England & Wales, where sentences in lesser cases are passed by lay magistrates, but the problem in Scotland is very different. Sheriffs are very reluctant to lock women up for second or third minor offences; the problem is that the combination of alcohol/drug abuse, domestic violence, sexual abuse and the absence of real mental health care means that the same women appear in court week in week out until the court feels its hands are tied.

    Occasionally the court bends over backwards NOT to lock a woman up, not always successfully. In my local court one of our sheriffs took a very sympathetic view of a repeat shoplifter with alcohol, drugs and domestic abuse issues, and tried to let her get the help she needed on more than one occasion. Unfortunately for her, this was the wrong decision, as she was murdered a few days later.

    There should be more hostel type accommodation, with a welfare emphasis avbailable, as most female offenders are public nuisances, not public dangers.

  12. Voice of Reason,

    An interesting perspective - one that would be worth studying, particularly in the comparative perspective you mention, of a pre-dominantly professional & lay judiciary.