17 April 2012

HMP Cornton Vale "not fit for purpose..."

Its contents in large part exposed beforehand by a series of discreet leaks to the press, today the independent Commission on Women Offenders, chaired by former Lord Advocate Elish Angiolini, publishes its reports and recommendations.  The Commission's remit was:
"... to consider the evidence on how to improve outcomes for women in the criminal justice system; to make recommendations for practical measures in this Parliament to reduce their reoffending and reverse the recent increase in the female prisoner population".

This after a damning and profoundly saddening account from Hugh Monro of the atmosphere and facilities at Cornton Vale, Scotland's national facility for female prisoners. In April of last year, the Chief Inspector of Prisons for Scotland wrote of the "low staff morale and a general malaise" in the prison; its "very obvious and real atmosphere of boredom"; the clear inadequacies of the physical conditions of the prison itself, concluding that "the dignity, safety, infection control and health issues associated with this unacceptable situation are even more stark than in 2009". To generalise one of the Chief Inspector's particular assessments, Corton Vale was comprehensively indicted as an "utterly depressing" place, and a totally "unsuitable environment in which to hold very vulnerable girls and women". 

The Angiolini Commission agree. I've only had the briefest moment or two to scan the 108 page document, but the main coverage of the report will doubtless focus on the Commission's recommendations that Cornton Vale women's prison be flattened, and replaced by a ...

"... smaller specialist prison for those women offenders serving a statutory defined long term sentence and those who present a significant risk to the public.  Additional places for women offenders should be provided in local prisons to enable improved community integration and family contact (...) and supported accommodation should be commissioned as an alternative to custody and to support women on release."

About bloody time. The monstrous scandal of the place has resisted every well-intentioned attempt at modest improvement and reform. Like the Bastille, the problem it represents can only be assuaged by wholesale demolition.  The fug of sorrow and despair which clings to the place, and its melancholy roll-call of self-harm and suicide, ought to be a source of national mortification. Of Cornton Vale itself, the commissioners concluded that:
"Cornton Vale is not fit for purpose. Overcrowding has caused significant problems for the management and staff, and has inhibited opportunities to rehabilitate women and reduce their reoffending on release. 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. Staff working in Cornton Vale also find it very challenging due to the nature and complexity of women’s needs."

As you might expect, the Angiolini Commission's recommendations ranged more broadly across the criminal justice system.  Here are their essential conclusions, in summary.

1. Community Justice Centres (one stop shops based on the 218 Service, Willow Project and Women’s Centres in England) are established for women offenders to enable them to access a consistent range of services to reduce reoffending and bring about behavioural change.

2. Multi-disciplinary teams (comprising, as a minimum, a criminal justice social worker, a health professional and an addictions worker, where relevant) are established in the Community Justice Centres to co-ordinate offending interventions and needs, reduce duplication of effort and make more efficient use of resources.

3.  Women at risk of reoffending or custody should have a named key worker from the multi-disciplinary team as a single point of contact as they move through the criminal justice system, including any periods in custody, to co-ordinate the planning and delivery of interventions.

4.  Intensive mentoring (a one-to-one relationship where practical support and monitoring is provided by mentors on a wide range of issues relating to offending behaviour) should be available to women offenders at risk of reoffending or custody to support compliance with court orders.

5.  Supported accommodation should be more widely available for women offenders to increase the likelihood of a woman successfully completing an order or complying with bail conditions.

6.  A national service level agreement for the provision of psychiatric reports is developed between the National Health Service (NHS) and the Scottish Court Service to increase access and timeliness of such reports to assist the court with a sentencing decision.

7.  Mental health services and approaches should be developed in such a way that facilitates women with borderline personality disorder to access them. Mental health programmes and interventions for short-term prisoners are designed so that they can continue to be delivered in a seamless way in the community.

8.  The Scottish Government’s mental health strategy must place a greater focus on women offenders, specifically the provision of services to address trauma, self-harm and borderline personality disorder.

9.  An urgent review of the provision and resourcing of services for women with borderline personality disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (in relation to previous abuse and neglect) should be carried out.

10.  Mental health training for police, prison officers, criminal justice social workers and third sector must be widely available, with ongoing supervision.

Alternatives to prosecution

11. Fiscal Work Orders (unpaid work orders of between 10 and 50 hours – ’fine on time‘) are rolled out across Scotland for offenders as an alternative to prosecution. Procurators Fiscal are given new powers to impose a composite diversion order, which could include both unpaid work and rehabilitative elements.

12.  New powers are given to the police to divert women offenders from prosecution by issuing a conditional caution directing women offenders to attend Community Justice Centres so that appropriate services can be delivered.

13.  To ensure the availability of appropriate diversion schemes across Scotland and more consistent use of this measure, the services and programmes provided or coordinated by Community Justice Centres will be available to women at the point of diversion from prosecution.

14.  To help Procurators Fiscal quickly identify suitable cases for diversion, the police should highlight in their report whether a person is suitable for diversion, taking into consideration the victim and community.

15.  Alternatives to remand Bail supervision is available consistently across Scotland. For women offenders (‘bail supervision plus’) it will include mentoring, supported accommodation and access to Community Justice Centres to enable better compliance with bail orders and provide decision makers with the confidence to release on supervised bail rather than place women on remand.

16.  The Scottish Government examines further the potential of using electronic monitoring as a condition of bail, taking into account the findings of the pilot conducted in 2008.

17.  Immediate steps are taken by the Scottish Government to encourage and ensure that communication and awareness of alternatives to remand in custody among all of those dealing with offenders is improved.


18.  In order to provide a broader evidence base than is currently available on the effectiveness of the problem solving approach, a pilot of a problem solving summary criminal court should be established for repeat offenders with multiple and complex needs who commit lower level crimes. This pilot should run for male and female offenders.

19.  A truncated Criminal Justice Social Work Report, a Rapid Report, is available in summary criminal courts on the day of conviction, where possible or within two working days to enable the appropriate sentence to be imposed and implemented as quickly as possible.

20.  That in every case where the sentencing court assigns subsequent Progress Review Hearings, the judge who passed sentence should, wherever possible, deal with the subsequent hearings.

21.  The introduction of two new sentences; a composite sentence of imprisonment which would comprise a custodial element and a community based element and a suspended sentence.

22.  The Judicial Studies Committee is supported in being able to provide comprehensive training at appropriate intervals including induction training and engagement with local prisons and community based criminal justice services.


23.  Cornton Vale is replaced with a smaller specialist prison for those women offenders serving a statutory defined long-term sentence and those who present a significant risk to the public. The new national prison for women offenders should include:
  • Meaningful and consistent work with sufficient premises to allow that work to take place and enable all women prisoners to build skills for release and improve self-esteem and mental health. 
  • A medical centre with adequate space for group work and individual appointments to address physical and mental health problems.
  •  A separate unit for young women. 
  • A purpose built mother and baby unit.
  • A family-friendly visitor centre with an outside play area for children. 
24.  Most women prisoners on remand or serving short-term sentences are held in local prisons to improve liaison with local communities and reintegration once their sentence is complete.

25.  Video conferencing facilities are widely used to help manage the logistical demands made on Cornton Vale, reduce travel and improve communication between women and their families, and social workers, and make significant cost savings.

26.  We recommend that an independent non-executive member of the Scottish Prison Service Board is appointed with a specific remit for women offenders, championing and driving through change.

27.   Gender specific training is provided to all professionals working with women prisoners.

Community reintegration 

28.  Inter-agency protocols on prison discharge and homelessness are introduced across all areas of Scotland with the twin aims of sustaining tenancies when women are in custody and of securing access to safe accommodation for every woman prisoner upon release from custody.

29.  In order to prevent financial instability that may lead to the recommencement of offending behaviour, the UK Government, which has responsibility for Social Security matters, puts arrangements in place, as a matter of urgency, to ensure that every woman prisoner can access her benefit entitlement, immediately upon release from prison.

30.  Community reintegration support is available for all women offenders, during and after their custodial sentence is completed, irrespective of the local authority they are from. Offenders are met at the gate on release from prison by their key worker or appointed mentor.

Making it work (leadership, structures and delivery) 

31.  A new national service, called the Community Justice Service, is established to commission, provide and manage adult offender services in the community.

32.  A National Community Justice and Prison Delivery Board, with an independently appointed Chair, is set up to promote integration between the Community Justice Service and the Scottish Prison Service, and deliver a shared vision for reducing reoffending across the community and within custodial settings.

33. A senior director in each of the key agencies is identified to take responsibility for women offenders, championing and driving through change.

34.  The Cabinet Secretary for Justice reports to the Scottish Parliament within six months of the publication of this report, and annually thereafter, on the steps taken to implement the recommendations in this report. 


  1. Perhaps my memory is playing tricks with me but many of these recommendations seem as though they might have been produced in the 1990s. Anyway, I'm off to write a letter to my MSP asking her to get something done about implementing these changes. Two and a half cheers at most I'm afraid but better late than never.

  2. Angus,

    No memory trick. This is an old string, Angiolini and her commission are harping on. Hopefully, however, it proves a spur to real action and change in the female prison estate - but as you say, I won't hold my breath till the bulldozers go in...

  3. Groundskeeper Willie19 April 2012 at 22:51

    Would any of this be necessary if the market for recreational drugs was run by the state rather than by organised crime?