The safety of women in prison in Scotland has been the focus of attention recently. Claims that many women prisoners are also victims of male violence have been highlighted across the media and calls to ensure the safety of women locked up in prisons in Scotland (and elsewhere across the UK) have been loud. But these recent concerns, emanating from ongoing controversy around gender recognition reform, raise deeper issues that we should take this opportunity to uncover. The evidence has been clear for decades, prisons are not safe places for women and the location of transgender prisoners could well be a distraction from these entrenched and long-standing problems.
The current political debates and media coverage of the Scottish Government’s Gender Recognition Reform Bill, passed by the Scottish Parliament in December 2022, have highlighted important issues peripheral to the central one of gender recognition reform. This includes the contentious power of the UK Government to over-rule this legislation, developed with cross-party support in Scotland, by using section 35 of the Scotland Act 1998 to do so .
Publicity surrounding the Bill has highlighted the ease with which the media are able to vilify individuals and marginalised groups; conflating people convicted of sexual offences, with the transgender community. While the terrain of this heated discussion has largely been the press and debating chambers of parliament, an additional key focus for this contested space has been the prison. Curiously enough, women’s prisons have been presented as a central concern around ‘women’s safety’ and, along with women’s refuges, toilets and changing rooms, have been put forward by critics of the proposed legislation, as one of the last women-only bastions of Scottish society; and one that is urgently in need of safeguarding. This issue, which has been a continual backdrop to the discussions about gender reform, was catapulted into the foreground when the worst fears of gender reform bill opponents were realised with the imprisonment of a transwoman convicted of serious sexual offences (including two charges of rape) in HMP Cornton Vale, Scotland’s prison for women.
The media frenzy generated by this issue resulted in an urgent case management of the prisoner (held for two nights in segregated accommodation in the Scottish prison for women). The Scottish Prison Service (SPS) review found that “at no time during this period were any women in SPS care at risk of harm as a consequence of the management of the individual” however, the case was considered a serious challenge to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, as a result of ongoing controversy about SNP policy and practice. Following the SPS review, transgender prisoners will now be initially located in a prison establishment according to their sex at birth for assessment. This is a change from a policy drawn up in 2014 which highlighted the importance of meeting the person in custody’s needs by locating them where best suited the gender in which they were currently living.
However, this moment should not pass without acknowledging the importance of this attention to concerns about the safety of women in prison in Scotland. There have been many inquiries and reports into the condition and circumstances of women who are imprisoned. This momentum increased during the 1990s when 11 women died by suicide between 1995 and 2002. The deaths caused significant national concern and there is little doubt that the Scottish Government and Scottish Prison Service have made efforts over recent years to address the circumstances of women in prison.
Ongoing reports, research and strategies have highlighted the harms of imprisonment, and the circumstances that all too often, result in the criminalisation and punishment of women – with related consequences for their families. Concerns about the safety of women in prison have been heightened by high levels of poor mental health among women prisoners, addiction-related issues as well as disproportionately high rates of experiences of violence and sexual abuse.
The Scottish Government’s Strategy for Women in Custody 2021-25, indicates that 85% of women prisoners had experienced abuse as children, with 92% having experienced ‘traumatic adult events’, such as domestic abuse. It suggests that around, 61% suffer from PTSD. It is shameful that the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture raised a number of issues relating to the treatment of people in places of detention.
The National Preventive Mechanism progress report (2021) noted recommendations and concerns that had not been fully addressed since previous reports – notably the failure to provide adequate purposeful activities for women prisoners held in male prisons; the length of time that some women prisoners were being held in segregation (noting evidence that some women were held for over a month in such conditions) and the failure to transfer women with severe mental health disorders to an appropriate psychiatric facility with a specified period. These high levels of experiences of social disadvantage and experiences of violence are stark given the high levels of imprisonment for offences that were frequently for acquisitive crime (for example theft and fraud), often linked to personal circumstances that too often seem to generate the continual churn through Scotland’s penal complex.
Campaigns aimed at ‘keeping women safe in prison’ in recent months, have focused on the importance of prison as single sex spaces. Calls to prevent transwomen being held in prisons for women, have been void of any concern that in Scotland, women prisoners are held in male prisons across the country nor has there been any attempt to critique the staffing of women’s prisons, where male prison officers work alongside female officers.
However, concern has been about ‘vulnerable’ women in prisons – many of whom have been victims of domestic abuse and other forms of violence, including sexual – and while this may indeed require careful consideration of risk assessments etc, as is currently called for, it should also raise questions about the appropriateness of imprisoning women under these circumstances. There have been many effective alternatives to dealing with women in conflict with the law in Scotland and internationally – yet despite this and acknowledging the recent drop in numbers of women in prison in Scotland – there are still too many women being held, particularly on remand. Current attempts to restructure the penal estate for women has taken the form of Community Custody Units, developed and operated by the Scottish Prison Service, effectively extending the penal estate rather than providing an alternative to it.
While the issue of gender reform is played out in confrontational terrain, the importance of keeping women safe requires a fundamental reform of the use of imprisonment. This issue is significantly undermined by calls for women-only-prisons. The real questions should interrogate, rather than simply accept, the fact that we place some of the most vulnerable women in society in the most dangerous settings that exist. For those who wish to champion the safety of women while they are in prison, there are deeper and entrenched issues that need to be addressed.