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.

9.Risks and Further Considerations

Small and/or local women's prisons, whilst having the potential to improve outcomes for women offenders, are not without their challenges. Some of the potential risks of prison regimes of this nature (as suggested by the literature) are listed below:

  • Localisation in itself is unlikely to work in the absence of sufficient resources (both within and outwith prisons) and a gender-specific ethos (e.g. see earlier discussion about some aspects of healthcare in Spain).
  • There appear to be other barriers to family visits beyond location and child-friendly facilities (e.g. costs of phone calls and travel, willingness of carers and/or mothers) which local prisons alone may not overcome.
  • Small and/or community-based prisons may struggle to provide specialist care, particularly mental healthcare as has been experienced in Canada and Australia which both have national specialist mental health units.
  • Isolation (from services) in small or campus-style prisons could be a problem. It has been suggested, for example, that prisons should be placed near urban areas and/or within a 'community network' (i.e. where prisons are situated either physically or virtually within a local community) to ensure a range of service provision is available regardless of size or location[223]. The rural nature of some communities in Scotland may exacerbate this risk.
  • The lessons learned from Canada emphasise how important it is that prisons are not designed and implemented in the absence of transformation in penal culture and effective management[224], and/or in isolation from sentencing practices (Canada's prison population has continued to rise despite the introduction of regional prisons).

More generally speaking, a gender-specific approach might also consider:

  • The limitations of prison itself and, specifically, the factors outwith its control such as the social conditions that (some argue) give rise to offending behaviour in women rather than women's individual pathology which tends to be the focus of offender programmes[225].
  • The risks of the extension of prisons to communities (e.g. through more open prisons, intensive community sanctions etc.), noting the concerns of some that this may represent an expansion rather than contraction of punishment of women[226], or, as described in the Northern Ireland literature review, a supplement rather than a replacement of traditional measures which could lead to net-widening and up-tariffing of sentences for women[227]. Similarly, others have argued that increased surveillance in the community could be disempowering[228].
  • Related to the above point, some studies have reported up-tariffing of sentences for women "due to the 'courts' greater readiness to impose community sentences"[229]. The risk of this approach, it is argued, is an increased risk of custody for breach of an order (or a history of breaches) rather than for the original offence. Others have argued that the complex requirements of a community order can also lead to an increased risk of breach (and subsequent custody)[230]. This has led to a call for greater flexibility and discretion in the management of compliance and breach[231]. These issues, though concerned with community sentences are of relevance to any discussions about the increased supervision of women in the community (e.g. through electronic monitoring).
  • Recognition that women are not a homogenous group, with some arguing that gender-specific models fail to take sufficient account of women's ethnicity, age and social status, and their distinctive needs[232].


Email: Tamsyn Wilson

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