13 August 2012

The fate of Cornton Vale...

Back in April, the Angiolini Commission on Women Offenders concluded:


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.

Easily said, but not so easily delivered.  Scotland's prisons are overstretched, overcrowded, and getting more so. Women make up just 6% of the population: 94% of prisoners are men.  Men and women both, overall, the average daily population has increased from around 6,000 souls in 2000, to 8,178 in 2011/12 - a stonking increase of over 35% in a smidgeon over the decade.  Nobody needs reminding that Ebenezer Scrooge is the patron saint of our public finances, and a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching - might struggle to find oodles of cash to envision, etch and erect a few facility for women prisoners, however odious Cornton Vale may be.

So what progress is being made? Last week, the Scottish Prison Service put out a consultation paper, significant not least for what it proposes, and the comments it makes on the financial feasibility and timescale in which Cornton Vale might reasonably be closed and replaced. While views are sought ‘on the longer term solution include what the size, nature and location of a new national prison should be’ (p. 6), the Prison Service make the financial pinch clear, and are sanguine about the length of time it may take to replace Cornton Vale. They say:

‘The SPS is committed to establishing a regime for women based on the recommendations in the Commission’s report. However, at this point, the SPS does not have the resource to build a new national prison for women either stand alone or as part of a larger complex. Even if resources were available immediately, it takes around 6 years to design and build a new national facility wherever it is located’ (p 6)

Significantly, however, the SPS also:

‘... supports the view that it is not acceptable to maintain a regime that centres on HMP Cornton Vale in its current form for this length of time’ (p. 6)

So what can be done? Little to no resources for a new unit, plans to make, planning to navigate, an intolerable wait.  SPS are proposing to...

‘...devise proposals that deliver the essence of the Commission’s recommendations within a reasonable timeframe and, as far as possible, within existing resources’ (p 6). 

And indeed, they've done some devising already.  They propose to build a new specialist unit at HMP Edinburgh and by ‘fully utilising the accommodation and the opportunities presented by the planned HMP Inverclyde’ (6). This could be functioning, they suggest, by 2015-16 and would ‘in effect provide a national prison’. The women incarcerated in these units are envisaged to be a) complex cases, b) women during the first stages of long term sentences and c) women in need of multiple or high level interventions, with the remaining women's prisoners being distributed to what they style smaller "community-facing" units, closer to women's communities, as recommended by the Angiolini Commission. 

Longer term, the consultation also solicits views on whether and how a single, national unit should be built. Where in Scotland? For how many prisoners? With what amenities and services?

‘An alternative option, but one that is still contingent upon women offenders being moved out of HMP Cornton Vale, would be to demolish HMP Cornton Vale and build a purpose built and smaller facility on site. This proposal would also require additional resources and would have to form a bad for the next Spending Review, standing alongside the bid for HMP Glasgow. Realistically, this facility could not be available before 2018’ (p. 7)

Nobody can be insensible to the limited resources we have, not to the clamour from all quarters for preferred projects and programmes to be funded.  That said, I do hope that the spirit of Scrooge doesn't extinguish the new penal spirit Elish Angiolini and her commission summoned up, with jury-rigged half-solutions, done on the cheap, and in the process, merely abolish the name of HMP Cornton Vale, and not the conditions and failures in provision which have made it notorious.

That consultation paper in full.


  1. Thanks for the background.

    Here's a notion: they should demolish Cornton Vale and flog the huge parcel of land it sits on, which must be worth an absolute fortune. (Right on the banks of the Forth, virtually in the shadow of the Wallace monument, and yards from the poshest village in Central Scotland.)

    Sell it on the condition the developers build a mix of public and private housing there -- alleviating other pressure on greenbelt land that side of Stirling, and with no need for new roads -- and spend the money on a proper, purpose-built facility closer to Glasgow.

    Would it be the Crown Estate who owns the land the prison sits on?

  2. Anonymous,

    I can't pretend to know a great deal about that area of Scotland (despite being born in Stirling, myself), or its potential worth as real estate, or for a welcome extension in affordable housing. I'd imagine such things are part of the SPS's calculations. As to the ownership of the land, the SPS is a executive agency, so I'd hazard the guess that the ultimate owners of the land may well be Scottish Ministers. I've not checked, however.