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Tuesday, 19 November, 2002, 10:59 GMT
Women prison's 'recipe for disaster'
Cornton Vale Prison
Cornton Vale Prison houses more than 200 women
Overcrowding and high levels of staff sickness at Scotland's only women's jail are creating a "recipe for disaster" according to the country's outgoing chief inspector of prisons.

Clive Fairweather's latest report on Cornton Vale Prison, near Stirling, raises major concerns over a 60% rise in the number of inmates being housed there.

The jail's population rose to 290 this year before 50 women were moved to a special section of a male prison at Greenock.

Mr Fairweather said the Scottish Executive is doing all it can to cope with rising prison numbers but questioned the need to jail women who commit "petty offences".

Clive Fairweather
Clive Fairweather: "Record high numbers"
Speaking on BBC Radio's Good Morning Scotland programme, Mr Fairweather said conditions at Cornton Vale were a cause for concern.

"If we go back to the dark, gloomy days of 1996, Cornton Vale has changed out of all recognition," he said.

"But no matter what the Scottish Prison Service do, the problem is the record high numbers of women from all over Scotland being sent to Cornton Vale - a lot of them for petty offences.

"As a result, with staff sickness levels so high, we certainly had when I was there in September, the recipe for disaster.

'Major strain'

"Luckily since then the prison service have moved some people to Greenock but even that is a prison designed for males and it shows how desperate measures really are when they're having to move 50-odd prisoners there."

Mr Fairweather said that there were about 180 women at Cornton Vale during his first inspection in 1996.

He said the aim was to reduce the numbers to under 100 by the year 2000, but instead of achieving this, the prison population had gone up and been "in the region of 290 this year".


For those who have been sent there for petty offences it really is creating huge pressures on staff and we've got to find other ways

Clive Fairweather
"It may sound nothing, an extra 110 women, but it's an enormous burden on a very small prison," he said.

The outgoing chief inspector of prisons said that many of the women in the jail had drug and "other problems" which placed a "major strain" on the medical facilities and staff.

He pinpointed drug abuse in society as the main reason for rising prison numbers and described the problem as a "stain on the carpet spreading very, very slowly".

Mr Fairweather added: "I have no difficulty with women who have committed serious crimes going to jail but for those who have been sent there for petty offences it really is creating huge pressures on staff and we've got to find other ways."

Justice Minister Jim Wallace said he recognised the problems caused at all Scottish prisons by overcrowding and wanted to continue developing more alternatives to custody.

No public danger

Commenting on Mr Fairweather's latest report, he said: "It is clear from this report that the main difficulty facing Cornton Vale at present is the high number of women being sent there by the courts.

"Steps have been taken by the Scottish Prison Service to try and address these pressures by opening a facility at Greenock Prison for women offenders.

"I have repeatedly stressed that the executive is also committed to alleviating such pressures by developing more alternatives to custody for the courts to use.

Jim Wallace
Jim Wallace: "More alternatives to custody"
"There is no doubt that there are women in Cornton Vale who present no danger to public safety and indeed present a greater danger to themselves."

Mr Wallace said that "where appropriate" alternatives to prison needed to be identified.

He also stressed that the executive was already developing alternatives such as the Drug Treatment and Testing Orders and the new Timeout Centre in Glasgow.

He added: "It is clear that a change in culture is needed to tackle the problem of women's offending and to give a renewed focus on rehabilitation and treatment rather than punishment alone."

Susan Matheson, of the charity Sacro, which helps resettle prisoners after release, called for a redefinition of certain crimes in a bid to reduce the number of women in jail.

'Community sentences'

She said more female offenders should receive rehabilitation programmes, such as drug treatment, in the community, rather than in prison.

"I think it has been well recognised for some time that a large proportion of the women Cornton Vale are more a danger to themselves than they are to the public," she told BBC Radio's Good Morning Scotland programme.

"I think what the public want is to be safe and they want offenders to make amendment to society and community sentences can deliver that.

"A large number of recent studies show that people want the sentence that can make the community safer - a very short prison sentence very rarely can do that especially with the sort of damaged women with drug abuse and other problems."

See also:

04 Sep 02 | Scotland
01 Sep 02 | Scotland
22 Jul 02 | Scotland
28 Jul 02 | Scotland
26 Jul 02 | Scotland
06 Jun 02 | Scotland
31 Aug 00 | Scotland
05 Jun 02 | Scotland
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