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Women ‘using jail to escape from lives of abuse’

by Lucy Adams  June 18 2007

Women in Scotland are choosing to go into prison - and stay there longer - because their lives on the outside are so chaotic, according to a new EU-funded report.

In some cases, the problems faced by women on the outside were so enormous they considered prison as a "refuge".

The report, which involved in-depth interviews with inmates, staff and the Cornton Vale prison governor, also reveals that women had "committed crimes (including fire-raising) within prison so as to actually avoid release".

It indicates some women choose to go to prison to escape abusive partners; others to try to stabilise spiralling debts and drug addiction.

The study, which looks at the female prison populations in Scotland, Spain, Germany, Poland and Austria, suggests that sentencers sometimes send women to prison to receive help not available in the community.

The Scottish part of the European study, conducted by Dr David Shewan of Glasgow Caledonian University, reveals an unsettling picture of the lives of female prisoners.

Most are misusing drugs, and many of them have been abused. They have limited education and employment skills and, to an even greater degree than male prisoners, they suffer from mental disorders, especially depression and anxiety.

"There is evidence that some of these women are choosing to go to prison," said Dr Shewan. "A very high proportion of these women are damaged and vulnerable. We need to find ways of looking after them, not imprisoning them. Cornton Vale is a very well-run jail but we don't want most of these women to be in prison at all."

Scotland has one of the fastest-growing female prisoner populations in Europe, despite repeated promises from ministers to reduce the problem.

In the past decade, it has more than doubled. Last year, it peaked, with 365 women behind bars. On the same day in 2002, there were 273 women in jail.

"Community services are so unable to meet the basic needs of women offenders with drug problems, and so many other problems, that incarceration becomes an easier option," according to the report.

"Could this be one of the underlying reasons why the female prison population in Scotland has been (increasing), and continues to increase?"

Prison experts, including the inspectorate, have called for greater use of community alternatives.

The 218 project is a Glasgow-based alternative to custody that offers women residential rehabilitative and detox programmes. Run by Turning Point Scotland, it is funded by the Scottish Executive.

Its work with women is judged to be very successful but participants in the study suggested similar and additional projects should be considered.

Ministers have pledged to try to tackle the growing numbers and Kenny MacAskill, Justice Secretary, is keen to place more emphasis on alternatives to custody. He has also expressed his desire to tackle the root causes of crime.

See also
Prison increases 24-02-07
Scotland need seven new jails 06-06-07
Polmont boys 06-03-07
One in four children in poverty 23-05-07
Prison Blues 02-11-06

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