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.


The evidence suggests that, whilst there are sound reasons for considering smaller, more local prisons which bring women in custody closer to their families, social networks and local community services, the evidence on the impact (e.g. on reoffending) of specific prions models is fairly limited. That being said, there is some evidence of reduced reoffending in a number of community residential facilities. Similarly, countries with penal systems comprising of smaller, women-only custodial units tend to report low rates of recidivism[xxviii].

There are clearly a wide range of models of custody for women across and within different countries. Notwithstanding the methodological problems in comparing different approaches (e.g. due to different sentencing, prison populations and crime rates) and the limitations of transferring international models[239] , there does appear to be a set of principles which tend to accompany low female prison populations. These centre around the Scandinavian concept of 'normalisation' and a gender-specific ethos:

  • pro-normalisation sentencing practices (e.g. greater use of community sanctions and open prisons/half-way houses which take account of women's needs)
  • pro-normalisation staff culture and training (e.g. gender-specific training which balances supervision with preparing women for release)
  • pro-normalisation prison design and location (e.g. self-contained houses, family-friendly facilities, accessible location - for visitors and services)
  • pro-normalisation prisoner life (e.g. purposeful activities in prison, 'self-care' approaches, parenting interventions)
  • pro-normalisation rehabilitation (e.g. enabling women to access local services, work, training etc. whilst in custody and beyond).

Whilst prison size, design and location are important factors they are not in themselves guarantors of a low female prison population. That being said, implementing an ethos of 'self-care' or independent living is dependent to some extent on the availability of suitable facilities (e.g. shared houses with access to shops, laundry etc.). Similarly, maintaining family and community ties (including local services) is better served by prisons located close to women's homes.

Given the lack of robust evidence regarding the effectiveness (e.g. on reoffending rates) of specific models of custody it is difficult to draw definitive conclusions on 'what works'. Rather what appears important is that that any redesign of a custodial estate is undertaken as one important element of an overarching strategy which aims to reduce female offending, imprisonment and reoffending (and, possibly, intergenerational offending). This report has only touched on some of the wider issues that a regime change in female imprisonment in Scotland might consider, such as sentencing practices, custody thresholds, service capacity (both in prisons and the community), arrangements with other community-based service providers (specialist and universal), public acceptance, values, leadership and professional development of criminal justice staff, and security and compliance.

However, much can be learned from other countries and the steps that some have taken to improve the experiences and outcomes of women who offend and their families. With the current drive for penal reform, Scotland is well-placed to learn from these experiences and develop an evidence-based, gender-responsive approach to working with women - at risk of custody, in custody and beyond custody - to improve their lives, and those of their families and communities.


Email: Tamsyn Wilson

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