Page last updated at 09:31 GMT, Tuesday, 10 November 2009

MSPs concerned over women in jail

View of a woman prisoner in her jail cell through the cell door window
MSPs called for improvements at Cornton Vale prison

The treatment of women with mental health problems by the justice system needs to be looked into by the Scottish government, MSPs have said.

Holyrood's equal opportunities committee said ministers needed to take more action to prevent female offenders from returning to a life of crime.

The committee's call came after it held an inquiry into the issue.

It called for more community-based sentences to be given to female offenders.

According to the committee's report, 80% of female inmates have mental health problems, almost all have problems with drug or alcohol addiction and many have children on the outside.

The committee said more should be done to tackle the drugs problem at Cornton Vale, Scotland's only female prison.

However, it said prisoners caught taking substances should no longer have access to their children removed as punishment.

The report called for a more holistic approach to female offenders, community-led and positive discrimination of women which takes into account their different circumstances.

Mike Ewart, head of the Scottish Prison Service, told the committee earlier this year that too many women were being locked up.

More action needs to be taken by the Scottish government and other public bodies to prevent re-offending by female offenders
Margaret Mitchell
Convener, Holyrood equal opportunities committee

There has been about a 90% rise in the number of women being sent to Cornton Vale over the past 10 years, compared with a 16% rise for the male prisoner population.

Concerns were raised over "limited" quality of mental health care in the jail, and evidence that "too many" women behind bars posed only a threat to themselves.

About 80% of women in jail have mental health problems, and about 2% of those should be in hospital, Scottish Prisons Service director of health and care Dr Andrew Fraser told the committee.

He suggested 10% of the women could be treated with support in the community.

Committee convener Margaret Mitchell said MSPs were "deeply concerned" over a practice where women deliberately committed crimes to gain access to the services provided at the prison.

'Alarming' figures

"The committee learned that women's experiences of the criminal justice system are different from men's and that some of these differences may stem from, or result in, discrimination or inequality," she said.

The Tory MSP added: "Given this, more action needs to be taken by the Scottish government and other public bodies to prevent re-offending by female offenders, by fully addressing their needs and individual circumstances."

MSPs also said relationships between female prisoners and their children had to be supported in the wake of "alarming" figures showing about half of women inmates' children were sent to jail as adults.

Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill said: "It's clear that more and more people, including this committee, are agreeing with the Scottish Government's position that prison should only be for the serious offenders who commit the serious crimes.

"That's why we have been working hard to ensure more low level offenders are given the chance to address the underlying causes of their behaviour rather than serve ineffective short jail sentences."

But Scottish Labour's Justice spokesman, Richard Baker, claimed Mr MacAskill was looking "to weaken the criminal justice system.

He added: "The treatment of female offenders needs to be improved but the right way forward is not the scrapping of all six month or less sentences.

"We do want to see more community sentences and in many instances this will be appropriate for female offenders with the problems the Committee identifies. But this requires appropriate investment in community sentences in which the public can have confidence.

"Mr MacAskill is proposing a massive increase in community sentences without funding it properly, and has scrapped plans for the Community Court in Glasgow."

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