International Review of Custodial Models for Women: Key Messages for Scotland

This report summarises some of the international evidence on different approaches to managing women in custody. It was prepared to inform the consultation undertaken by the Scottish Government and the Scottish Prison Service earlier this year in relation to the redesign of the female custodial estate in Scotland.

1.Main Messages

  • Scotland has one of the highest female prison populations in Northern Europe. The growth in the female prison population appears to have been driven by increases in custodial convictions for serious violent crime, drugs offences and common assault.
  • A wide range of custodial approaches for women exist internationally from non-residential alternatives such as community supervision and electronic monitoring in Sweden, to open prisons in Finland and Germany, and 'cottage' or 'campus-style' prisons in Canada and some parts of Australia.
  • Scandinavian countries, which have fewer women in custody, tend to adopt a pro-welfare, non-punitive approach which emphasises rehabilitation. Typically, this is characterised by substantial use of community alternatives to custody and open prisons, a professionalised workforce, and small, dedicated facilities for women. Penal policy is expert-led and tends not to be influenced by sensationalisation of crime or victimisation.
  • Canada has been recognised for its transition from a traditional, male-centric approach to a women-only regional system. However, despite its ethos of 'self-care' remaining sound, the female prison population has continued to rise and its prison estate has consequently expanded. This has been attributed (in part) to an increase in the use of short sentences, particularly for women with mental health problems. Evidence emphasises the importance of staff and management culture in prisons, the availability and quality of support, and preparing women for release.
  • Maintaining family links is important for many women in custody. Although precise figures are hard to obtain it is estimated that approximately 65% of women in prison in Scotland are mothers. Of those with childcare responsibilities prior to imprisonment (about 60% of mothers), most intend to resume that care on release.
  • The main challenges of small and/or local prisons appear to be ensuring availability of specialist services for women with complex needs, reducing the risk of isolation (from services) in small and/or community-based units, and transforming the ethos, culture and practice of prison staff and management, and the wider criminal justice system, in particular sentencing practices.
  • The evidence suggests that whilst there are sound reasons for considering small, local prisons which bring women in custody closer to their families, social networks and community services, the evidence on the impact (e.g. on reoffending) of specific prison models is fairly limited. Whilst prison size, design and location are important factors they are not in themselves guarantors of success.
  • Prison reform is likely to be more effective if it is part of wider penal reform. Countries with lower rates of female prison populations tend to have different sentencing practices, including a greater use of alternatives to custody and open prisons than is currently available in Scotland.


Email: Tamsyn Wilson

Back to top