Page last updated at 14:01 GMT, Tuesday, 5 May 2009 15:01 UK

Female prison policy criticised

View of a woman prisoner in her jail cell through the cell door window
The committee is investigating the treatment of female prisoners

Scotland's chief prisons inspector has hit out at the policy of having just one female-only prison.

Dr Andrew McLellan told MSPs it was a major factor in overcrowding at Cornton Vale Prison and meant many women were too far away from their families.

The Scottish Prison Service admitted the regime at the prison, near Stirling, had slipped amid population increases and pressure on staff time.

Holyrood's Equal Opportunities Committee is probing the issue.

Dr McLellan told its inquiry on female offenders in the justice system it did not seem to be "fair or honest" to make the argument that all women prisoners should be at one site to help them benefit from rehabilitation programmes.

I do think there are aspects of the regime that have eroded
Sue Brookes
Scottish Prison Service

"I do not agree with the policy of the Scottish Prison Service which is to concentrate all women prisoners in one site," he said.

"That by itself is a significant factor of overcrowding in Cornton Vale."

Pointing out that women prisoners were, until recently, held in Aberdeen, Inverness and Dumfries, Dr McLellan added "Almost all of the women who were in these local units were there for a very short time and largely were there on remand, for five days or seven days or at the most three weeks, so none of these people in Cornton Vale were ever going to take advantage of the critical mass.

"But the closing of these units increases significantly the overcrowding in Cornton Vale and severely impairs the family contact and family support which women in Aberdeen or Inverness or Dumfries might have had."

Sue Brookes, head of offender strategy and partnership development with the prison service, agreed more female prisoners should be closer to home.

But she dismissed re-opening the Aberdeen and Inverness female prison facilities, saying many of the women in Cornton Vale had acute physical and mental problems.

"The reasons for closing them were not just about access to programmes," said Ms Brookes - a former governor of Cornton Vale.

"They were because, certainly in my view, some of the medical care that was available was not appropriate and was putting women at risk."

Following a visit to the prison last week, she added: "I do think there are aspects of the regime that have eroded because of the population increases and the time constraints on staff.

"They do an absolutely marvellous job, given where the numbers now are, but the regime is not as good as it could have been."

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