Scottish ministers have failed to meet pledges to cut the number of women in prison according to new figures which reveal a one-third rise in the female jail population in the last five years.
In May 2002, there were 273 women behind bars. The figure rose to 318 last year and 365 in May this year.
Most are jailed for short sentences for non-violent crimes - many simply for not paying fines - and have suffered a history of violence and abuse. The majority also have mental health problems and are addicted to drugs.
Scotland's political leaders promised action to reduce the number of women behind bars following a spate of suicides at Cornton Vale, Scotland's only dedicated women's prison, in the late 1990s.
The new figures were published today by the Scottish Consortium on Crime and Criminal Justice. Baroness Vivien Stern, convener of the think-tank, accused Executive ministers of "failing to meet their commitment" to tackle the problem and called for more appropriate community sentences for women offenders to steer vulnerable females away from jail.
She said: "The number of women in prison in Scotland is rising in spite of wide agreement that policies should be in place that reduce it. This inappropriate use of prison for women benefits neither society, the women nor their families."
Baroness Stern, one of the UK's leading experts on prisons, praised work to improve Cornton Vale, which has seen new mother-and-baby facilities created, describing it as a "model prison". But she called for dedicated female offender support services - currently provided only by the 218 Centre in Glasgow - to be rolled out across the country.
Susan Mathieson, director of SACRO, which runs services for women offenders, said:
"Most women in jail have damaged backgrounds and need intensive support. I would support suspended sentences so children can reach a certain age before they have their mother taken away."
In his last report on Cornton Vale, Dr Andrew McClellan, Scotland's Chief Inspector of Prisons, found that 98 per cent of inmates had drugs problems, 80 per cent had mental health issues and 75 per cent had a history of abuse and "very poor" physical health.
In 2004-5, 442 women were jailed for failing to pay a fine. At present there are 24 women in prison for fine-defaulting. The average cost per inmate place last year was £32,685 and it is understood the costs for female inmates are near the top of the scale.
A spokesman for the prison service said: "Many of the women in Cornton Vale come from troubled backgrounds.There is a range of people there you might say shouldn't be in prison. But the prison service has to take whoever the court sends to us. This is a matter for the politicians."
A Scottish Executive spokeswoman said: "We want to see the number of women in prison fall - that is why a number of disposals have programmes focused on the needs of women." She added that pilot schemes for the mandatory use of supervision orders instead of jail had also been introduced for people who default on fines up to £500.
(c) The Scotsman