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.

2.Executive Summary

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 in relation to the redesign of the female custodial estate in Scotland. Particular emphasis was given to countries with low female prison populations (typically Scandinavian countries) and those with women-only, small and/or local prisons (as recommended in the Commission on Women Offenders 2012 report[1]).

Background and context

Scotland has one of the highest female prison populations in Northern Europe. The (average daily) female prison population in Scotland is approximately 400, with about 315 sentenced prisoners and 85 on remand. This represents approximately 5.5% of the total prison population.

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, rather than crimes of dishonesty such as shoplifting which have remained broadly stable over the last 15 years (though they still account for one fifth of the average daily prison population).

International models of women in custody

A wide range of prison models exist internationally. Many Scandinavian countries maintain low prison populations through widespread use of non-residential alternatives such as intensive supervision and electronic monitoring in Sweden, and Finland's gradual release scheme where prisoners can serve the last six months of their sentence in their community. Similarly, Ireland's community return programme has seen about a third of women (given a custodial sentence) on temporary release to the community.

Open prisons and smaller community residential facilities are widely used in many countries (including Germany, Australia and most Scandinavian countries) to prepare women for release and enable them to maintain links with the community; in some cases enabling women to work in the community (returning to prison in the evening) and reside with their children.

Some countries (such as Canada and Australia) have established 'campus style' facilities in which women are held in a cluster of small units or 'cottages' (housing up to 10 women per house). In Canada, for example, there are six federal facilities in which women live in shared houses. The facilities house minimum, medium and maximum-security women in one 'campus'. The ethos of these types of facilities is one of 'self-care', or independent living, in which women typically cook, clean and shop together, thereby taking responsibility for themselves, and in some cases their children.

Most Scandinavian countries also have dedicated women's prisons which typically house up to 60 women with different levels of security, enabling women towards the end of a lengthy sentence to spend time outside the prison, as well as providing overnight facilities for families to spend time with their mothers in custody.

The Scandinavian approach

Scandinavian countries (Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark), which have fewer women in custody, tend to adopt a pro-welfare, non-punitive approach. The principle of 'normalisation' is embedded into all aspects of the criminal justice system. This stipulates that prison life should resemble life outside of prison as far as possible. Some of the core features of the Scandinavian approach include:

  • Penal policy is expert-driven and research-led rather than politically-led
  • Prisoners undertake purposeful activities during the day (e.g. work, education)
  • Widespread use of community supervision, conditional imprisonment, and open prisons
  • Professionalisation of prison staff (mandatory two-three years training)
  • Dedicated (small) facilities for women
  • Emphasis placed on maintaining a mother's contact with her children
  • Public support for a rehabilitative approach
  • Policy is not influenced by sensationalisation of crime or victimisation.

Whilst it is possible to identify the conditions that have contributed to the Scandinavian penal system, there is no simple formula to its effectiveness. However, there are important lessons which can be learned from its approach, most notably the emphasis placed on community supervision and open prisons, the professionalisation of prison staff and the principle of normality, which underpins Scandinavia's humane approach to its prisoners and its prioritisation of reintegration (over retribution).

Learning from Canada

Canada has moved from a traditional, male-centric approach to a women-only regional system in which women are held nearer home, can have private family visits and receive trauma counselling. However, although the original ethos of 'self-care' remains sound, a number of studies have criticised its implementation. Since the 1990s the new prison regime has had to cope with increasing levels of female imprisonment and as a result has had to expand rather than contract. This has been attributed (in part) to an increase in the use of short sentences, particularly for women with mental health problems.

The main lessons from Canada are that specialist healthcare can be difficult to deliver in a federalised model (Canada have since established two national units for women with complex psychological problems), and that transformation must go further than prison redesign. Evidence highlights the importance of transforming prison staff and management culture, as well as ensuring adequate availability of programmes, and preparing women for release (e.g. through temporary release).

Other policy considerations

A range of policy considerations are covered (briefly) in the report. These include location, prison size, security, healthcare, financial costs, regime change, performance management, reintegration, sentencing practice, public acceptability, prison visits, and (in more depth) maintaining links with children and family.

Evidence suggests that although sentencing decisions are usually driven by the nature of the offence, they can also be influenced by a women's offending and sentencing history under certain circumstances. This may result in low-level offenders with a history of non-compliance being at risk of custody. It is likely that some of the women on remand and those serving short prison sentences may fall into this group. Other influential factors are women's presenting needs (particularly drug and mental health problems) and the availability and perceived effectiveness of community interventions. Careful thought would need be given to the pivotal role of the judiciary in any regime change, as well as the role of community services such as women's community justice services.

Maintaining links with children

It is reported that separation from their children is one of the most difficult aspects of imprisonment for women, and that family visits increase the likelihood of reintegration post-release and reduced reoffending. Although precise figures are difficult to obtain, approximately 65% of women in prison in Scotland report being mothers. Current evidence suggests that a sizeable proportion of mothers in prison (about 40%) report not having childcare responsibilities prior to imprisonment which may explain in part why only four in ten mothers receive family visits. Having said that, the vast majority of women (about 70%) with caring responsibilties prior to imprisonment intend to resume that care on release.

Wider evidence suggests that lack of familial contact tends to be attributed to travel and cost constraints, carer (and prisoner) unwillingness and inappropriate visiting environments.

There is some (albeit limited) evidence that the detrimental impact on children of parental imprisonment is more pronounced when the mother is imprisoned, given that mothers are more likely to have parenting responsibilities. The impact of parental imprisonment on children ranges from home and school moves, to poor academic performance, and increased risk of mental health problems and involvement with the criminal justice system.

Countries vary considerably in how mother-child contact is enabled. Whilst many countries allow young children to reside with their mothers in prison, the maximum age of children varies, from 12 months in Sweden to three years in Spain and Denmark. Germany, which is reported to have the most child-centred approach, has implemented some innovative approaches for women offenders with children, including allowing women 21 days leave per year to spend time with their children, and providing half-way houses where women can live with their children, in some cases, up to the age of 6. Best practice approaches for parent-child relationships include family-friendly visiting facilities, parenting programmes, maximising the use of new technologies (e.g. Skype), overnight visits of non-resident children, and continuation of family support on release.

Risks and other considerations

The report sets out a number of risks and challenges of small, geographically dispersed prisons, as indicated by the literature. These include ensuring availability of specialist services for women with complex (psychological) needs and, in a similar vein, reducing the risk of isolation from services which small and/or community-based prisons may be vulnerable to (particularly those in rural areas). Other challenges include overcoming the barriers to family visits and the influence of sentencing on prison populations.

Redefining custody?

There is increasingly more evidence that women are less likely to reoffend following a community sentence than a custodial one. This gives rise to questions about the appropriateness of custody for some women, particularly those on remand or serving short sentences for non-violent offences. It is in this sense that consideration is given to redefining custody; for example, a woman might be considered to be 'in custody' whilst serving her sentence at home, or at work whilst living in an open prison.


There is limited robust evidence of the effectiveness (e.g. on reoffending) of different prison models. Add to this the methodological problems with international comparisons, and it is hard to draw definitive conclusions on 'what works'. 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 and/or 'campus style' settings). Similarly, maintaining family and community ties is better served by prisons located close to women's homes.

Best practice appears to be underpinned by the Scandinavian principle of 'normalisation' and a gender-specific approach. Specifically, the conditions associated with low female prison populations tend to comprise of a range of pro-normalisation factors, including: sentencing (e.g. greater use of community-based sanctions and open prisons), staff culture and training (e.g. gender-specific training), prison design and location (e.g. family-friendly facilities, self-contained housing), prisoner life (e.g. independent living, purposeful activities, parenting interventions) and rehabilitation (e.g. linking women to community services).

Much can be learned from other countries and the steps that some have taken to improve the experiences and outcomes of women who offend. With the current drive for penal reform, Scotland is well-placed to learn from these experiences and develop an evidence-based and 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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