Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Kenny, Cornton Vale failure is your responsibility - sort it or go

Almost exactly two years ago, the Scottish Liberal Democrats highlighted the increase in the number of women self harming in prison. This came at around the same time as a damning inspection report on Scotland's only women's prison.

You would think, then, that, the SNP Government would have sorted things in time for the follow-up inspection which took place in February this year.

Sadly, and to my absolute fury, the inspection report released yesterday shows that things have not improved and have in some areas got worse over the last two years.  Conventional wisdom dictates that where problems have been identified in a service, that things will improve because of the spotlight, the attention, given to it. Not in this case. Look at the summary of progress since 2009:
2.1 Progress since the last inspection has been as follows.
Good Practice
Areas of Good Practice still in place       6
Areas which can no longer be described as Good Practice    4
Satisfactory progress made     3
Reasonable progress made     2
Progress not satisfactory     17
Points of Note
Satisfactory progress made   24
Reasonable progress made   15
Progress not satisfactory    36 
So, 4 areas which were described as showing Good Practice in 2009 no longer warrant that description and only 5 out of 17 recommendations have shown acceptable progress. We're going backwards, here.

It breaks my heart to think that women are being kept in conditions which are known to be overcrowded and their basic health needs, particularly in mental health, go unmet. It's not right.

Let's give you some examples. Yesterday's report is full of the righteous indignation of an inspector, Hugh Munro, who has seen for himself that his recommendations have been ignored.

It seems that the prison is failing at the most basic of levels. Paragraph 2.8 says:

The treatment of prisoners and the conditions in which they live are just not sufficiently good. This was a theme in the 2009 Inspection and except for minor progress in repainting some house blocks, conditions have either remained much the same or failed to improve. Indeed in some areas, such as the Mother and Baby Unit, they have worsened. The very poor access to toilets for women in Bruce and Younger Houses has continued and the dignity, safety, infection control and health issues associated with this
unacceptable situation are even more stark than in 2009.  

 Hugh Munro concludes that care of women with mental health problems must improve, noting that the most vulnerable don't even have proper care plans. And read what he has to say about the treatment of women removed from association:

Nowhere is the mental health issue more stark than in the euphemistically-named ‘Management Suite’ in Ross House. This segregation area is more colloquially known as the ‘back cells’. These cells are utterly depressing and are an unsuitable environment in which to hold very vulnerable girls and women. It is my view that these cells are used primarily as a control measure. Staff are insufficiently trained to deal with the women held there.  
He concludes that the lack of activity for women is also harmful to their well being.

I conclude that the way the regime is run at Cornton Vale must be reviewed with a determination to involve a far higher proportion of women in activities and offending behaviour interventions. This must include short-term prisoners as well as those on remand. For these two prisoner groups in particular, life at Cornton Vale is just far too restrictive, unproductive and lacking in challenge. This is no way to manage female prisoners in Scotland if there is to be any hope of reducing the level and frequency of their offending. 

As a liberal, I believe that prison should be there primarily to rehabilitate those who have broken the law, to give them the help and support they need to enable them to contribute positively to society when they come out. It's not just about money, although it is much cheaper if people don't keep going in and out of prison, it's about the human cost of persistent failure to give the appropriate support. Not just for the person concerned, but for their children.

So, given the second damning report in two years, what has justice secretary Kenny MacAskill done? Taken immediate, practical action to sort the problems out in the prison? Well, that wouldn't really be the SNP way. Their mantality seems to be "Why do today what you can talk about tomorrow and the next day?"You see the same thing with their moratorium on rural school closures. Anything but make a decision and do something.

MacAskill has set up a Commission to improve justice for female offenders, chaired by former Lord Advocate Dame Eilish Angiolini. This Commission will report by the end of this year. That report will no doubt sit on MacAskill's desk for a couple of months, and then, slowly, if we're lucky, some of its recommendations might be implemented. So we're looking at a good year before much improves inside Cornton Vale.

The thing is, Kenny doesn't need to set up another talking shop. If he just looked, the Equal Opportunities Committee of the Parliament actually looked at these issues 2 years ago in their report entitled "Female Offenders in the Justice System." I would be very surprised if this new Commission tells him anything different. What is it about SNP ministers that they disrespect the committees of the Parliament so much and set up their own bodies to duplicate their work?

If you look at that report, there's loads of stuff on how a more joined up approach between social services, housing, benefits and the prison service is needed,  how better care was needed to prevent reoffending, how mental health therapies needed to be available. It's not really rocket science. The report also asked for more clarity from MacAskill on sentencing (paragraph 114 and 115):
 Given the contrasting evidence on whether women are more harshly sentenced than men, the Committee notes with great interest quotes attributed to the Cabinet Secretary in the Herald on 12 August 2009:“There is analysis that (when) a man and woman facing punishment for the same offence, the woman will get a higher tariff. That is a product of Scottish society and perhaps male chauvinism that affects politicians as much as the judiciary. I don't think it is done deliberately, it is a cultural thing.”66115. The issue of gender inequalities in sentencing was raised with the Cabinet Secretary when he and his officials provided oral evidence to the Committee on 23 June 2009. A Scottish Government official said “I am not sure that we have any statistics that show that women are punished more harshly than men.”67 Given the Cabinet Secretary’s subsequent reported comments, the Committee considers that he should have raised these concerns first when providing oral evidence.The Committee would like to receive a more detailed summary of the analysis that the Cabinet Secretary is quoted as referring to, and, more importantly, an explanation of the action that he will take to address this apparent inequity in sentencing.
I think what annoys me the most about this, what really sticks in my craw, is MacAskill's blatant attempt to pretend that this catastrophic failure in the prison system is nothing to do with him.

"It highlights the serious issues facing female offenders, and, while the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) has made good progress in areas such as suicide risk management and education programmes, it is clear that much remains to be done to improve conditions. Things as they stand are unacceptable.
"This is a matter in operational terms for SPS and I know that they are looking carefully at the issues that have been raised and how they should be dealt with.
Sorry, Kenny. "It wisnae me, it was them at the Scottish Prison Service" just won't wash. You know why? Let's have a wee look at your ministerial responsibilities:
Kenny MacAskill MSP Responsibilities include: Criminal law and procedure, youth justice, criminal justice social work, police, prisons and sentencing policy, legal aid, legal profession, courts and law reform, anti-social behaviour, sectarianism, human rights, fire and rescue services, community safety, civil contingencies, drugs policy and related matters, liquor licensing, vulnerable witnesses, victim support and civil law, charity law, religious and faith organisations.
I'm pleased to see that Liberal Democrat Justice Spokesperson Alison McInnes has seen through MacAskill's excuses. She said:
 “This is a damming report from the Chief Inspector of Prisons. Nothing has been done to improve conditions at Cornton Vale Prison following last year’s poor report. In fact this report says that conditions are now much more ‘stark’.  “While I welcome the setting up of the Commission to look at a longer term strategy to reduce offending, that does not address the fact that the Government is utterly failing the women in the system now.
 “This is a shocking situation and the Justice Secretary cannot be allowed to shrug it off as an “operational matter for SPS”, he must take responsibility and direct that immediate improvements are made.” 
 Alison's right, but I don't have quite as much patience as she does. This Minister was told in 2009 both by HM Inspectorate of Prisons and by a committee of the Parliament that there were major failings at Cornton Vale and in the way women were treated in the justice system. Two years later, things, if anything, have got worse. If he's not prepared to take immediate, practical action to sort out the disgraceful conditions at Cornton Vale, then, frankly, he should hand over to someone who will.

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