The Justice Secretary for Scotland, Michael Matheson has just announced innovative new plans for the imprisonment of female offenders in Scotland. These proposals demonstrate a move towards more community-based forms of sentencing, with plans outlining the creation of one small national prison to house 80 women offenders, and 5 smaller community-based custodial units spread across communities in Scotland which will house up to 20 women each. The creation of the custodial community-based units will also be accompanied by alternatives to custody, such as electronic monitoring, and community-based services.
These proposals are a progressive step in the imprisonment of women in Scotland, a country with the second highest imprisonment rate of women offenders in Northern Europe. This move towards community based sanctions takes into account the harm done to families and communities by women being imprisoned. Evidence has shown that the children of women who have been imprisoned often suffer major disruption to their lives, with many experiencing homelessness and an increased risk of being imprisoned themselves. These proposals for a more community-based approach also take into account the importance of family contact while in prison, with many of the smaller prisons being situated close to offenders’ local communities, allowing family contact to be maintained.
This move towards a more community-based approach is a significant departure from initial plans announced in Scotland earlier in 2015 on the imprisonment of women offenders. Initially plans were proposed for the creation of a large prison for female offenders, built to house up to 350 women. These plans were decried by a number of organisations, including the Howard League Scotland who criticised these plans as not tackling the root causes of offending in women, such as addiction and experience of abuse. The Commission on Women Offenders, carried out by former lord advocate Elish Angiolini showed that the imprisonment of women, often for less than three months, did nothing to reduce re-offending, with up to 70% going on to re-offend within 3 years. This report also showed that women were of considerably lower risk to public safety than men, and often had mental health issues, such as self-harm or addiction, which were not dealt with or addressed by traditional imprisonment, with the staff in women’s prisons often not having the resources or abilities to deal with these issues.
This community-based approach to offending for women offenders could be an approach utilised in Ireland. The Joint Strategic Plan for the Irish Prison Service and Probation Service 2015-2017 sets out in its strategic action to promote social inclusion its commitment to responding to the needs of women prisoners, and pursuing a dedicated approach to working with women offenders in the community. The IPRT would welcome this more community-based approach and would point out that the effectiveness of community-based sanctions has been acknowledged by the UN “Bangkok Rules” and evidenced by research in other jurisdictions.