Presumption against prison – a game changer

It is perhaps the nature of things in Scotland today that two or more quite contrary views can be held by Government.

The SNP is committed to independence as the solution to Scotland’s ills, but is far less unanimous about what kind of policy solutions are needed or about using the powers that ministers have to make a difference. More revenues from oil and fracking? Or leave the fossil fuel in the ground and go for green renewables?  Progressive taxation or laissez faire tax lite? These are the more obvious choices that the Government is notably dodging.


Justice is a quieter contradiction.  Are we committed to liberal values, to the ECHR and being the most progressive justice system in Europe, or to increasing the use of criminal law and prosecution to force us all to be nicer at football matches and on the internet?

Justice is always a hot potato for governments – doing the sensible and right thing often takes second place to doing the popular thing. But public opinion can change very quickly, leaving ministers and tabloids looking out of touch.

So it was with the plan for the women’s prison, which was scrapped in the face of combined expert and public opposition early last year.  Dumped by Michael Matheson, the new Justice Secretary, who replaced the long-serving Kenny MacAskill in the hot seat.  MacAskill’s plan for a big ‘therapeutic’ super prison for women came out of the government’s response to the Commission on Women Offenders Report in 2012.  In fact, the Commission had never recommended anything like this supermax prison to be located way down the Clyde below Greenock.

Those of us who had campaigned against the prison, Women for Independence alongside the more traditional alliance of penal reformers in the Howard League, cheered when the announcement was made that the prison plan was scrapped. Before the cheering had died down though, we were presented with a complete contradiction of the main plank of our campaigning: prison is not the answer.

Oh yes it is, said the government, as it gave the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) the lead in developing plans to ‘reduce re-offending and so achieve a cut in the women’s prison population’. The prison service has been convincing government of the rehabilitative  benefits of prison for many years now and, despite evidence to the  contrary, the prison population has gone up. To the point where even the prison service is openly worrying about coping – without a substantial injection of funds.

Not surprisingly, the SPS has come up with a plan for…more prisons: a central prison for 80 women on the site of Cornton Vale and five other smaller prisons for 20 around the country. And no word of when the 50 bed units in the men’s prisons in Inverness, Edinburgh and Greenock would be shut.  The outcry about women having to pee in the sink in their cells which followed the HM Inspector’s report this week was met by a bland reassurance that ‘the Ministers announcement’ would make this a thing of the past. This may be the first time a Minister’s announcement has been claimed to actually be a toilet rather than just compared to one.

The simple answer is that prisons can’t be shut unless the supply of women into prison is turned off.  Scotland has the second highest pro-rata women’s prison population in Europe. Even higher than England’s and nearly four times higher than that of Ireland and Denmark.   There is no queue for prison places. Prisoners are just two-ed and even three-ed up when demand exceeds supply. There are, however, queues for effective holistic services that deal with offending by tackling the causes of offending. Until we turn that investment round we will fail to reduce the prison population.

Women for Independence came up with a radical proposal – take prison off the menu in the lower courts for both remand and sentencing. That would focus attention very quickly on alternative sentences – no more queues for Willow or Tomorrow’s Women and other similar services which actually work. Rapidly emptying prisons. The idea was supported by a wide range of justice organisations, including HM Inspector of Prisons, the Howard League and others.

A consultation by the Minister on extending the presumption against short prison sentences from the current derisory three months which has had little or no impact at all has resulted in 75% of respondents supporting raising the presumption against prison to one year. So this is a golden opportunity for a game-changer in Scotland. But will the Scottish Government seize it?

Source: Sceptical Scot

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Women for Justice, Justice for Women!

National Committee member Maggie Mellon recently spoke about our justice campaign at the Scottish Parliament.  Read the text of her speech and find out what Women for Independence are campaigning for.   (Photo shows Maggie hosting session on justice at our 2015 AGM).

Women for Independence  campaigned against the building of the large new superprison that was proposed. It was not  the only voice, but it has been recognised as  a game-changing voice because we took the debate out of the usual channels and addressed a new and much broader audience, women who had been engaged by the referendum debate and were asking questions about  the kind of Scotland we want to live in.

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New Prisons? Old Wine in New Bottles

Maggie Mellon of the WFI National Committee and WFI #Justicewatch argues that WFI need to stand firm and that prisons are not the answer.

Many WFI women who have support our campaign for justice for women will have read of the newly released plans for prisons for women in Scotland. These are to replace the super-prison which we campaigned so successfully against last year.

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Justice Watch Update August 2016

National Commitee member Maggie Mellon updates on #JusticeWatch.

In this blog, I am going to write about not just my own experience and views but also cover some of the issues that we all have encountered and the experiences of women in a number of courts.

A fair hearing?

Readers who have not been in a criminal court will have seen film and TV court scenes. In these the public gallery can hear everything clearly and understand it too.  But its not like that at all. Those who have been in an actual court will probably have had a different experience.

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Justice Watch: Edinburgh Week 5

(Photo: Press Association)

In her fourth post reporting on the Women for Independence #JusticeWatch initiative, Maggie Mellon queries waste, fines and poverty and something odd about domestic abuse cases.

Blunders, mix ups and waste of time and money

After two previous court visits without even one women actually appearing in the dock, although several had been called but were not present, or whose cases were discussed but they had not been ‘ordained’ to appear, I was beginning to wonder how many cases actually arrive at any conclusion at all.

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Justice Watch: Edinburgh Day 3

In this third part of her #JusticeWatch blog Maggie Mellon finds court more and more interesting – and depressing. Where are the social workers?

This week I did not get to visit the court until the Friday after Easter weekend. I once again found myself in Sheriff Katherine Mackie’s court. As once again she seemed to have the majority of women listed to appear before her.

It just gets more and more interesting – and depressing too in equal measure. Here are the two things that interested and depressed me this week.

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Justice Watch: Launch Day Edinburgh Part 2

In this second part of her #JusticeWatch blog Maggie Mellon reflects on women accused of domestic abuse.

There were three women listed as having been in police custody over the weekend or part of it, and friendly court staff told us that hey would not be up till the afternoon. Before that there were all those listed to appear in one of the 8 court rooms devoted to sheriff summary proceedings.

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