Brian Monteith: Prison reform can’t bar men

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Every so often a report comes out calling for a reduction in the number of women being sent to prison. It receives some headlines, some articles are written, and within a week or two everybody moves on and another issue grabs the news. The result is that little changes and women continue to go to prison for a variety of crimes and often it seems the wrong solution.

Another such report came out earlier this week when the former Lord Advocate, Dame Elish Angiolini, called on Scotland’s only women’s prison to be demolished. She made a strong and convincing case. Instead of maintaining Cornton Vale, a Bastille-like symbol to the women’s movement in Scotland, there should be regional units and a smaller secure unit for serious women criminals who are a threat to the public. Unsurprisingly, there was a chorus of approval, not least from people who have had something to do with Cornton Vale itself.

This had me rather worried, for Scotland as a nation is very good at rushing headlong into schemes through universal acclamation that leaves no room for dissent – speak out against something and immediately you are marginalised, branded as odd, out of step or even an extremist. Think of wind turbines and the rush to pepper Scotland with those ghastly uneconomic whirlygigs and you might get what I mean. Only now when so many are erected are the protests being heard.

I trembled a little for it seemed to me that an idea that might very well be the right one (as I am sympathetic to prison reform) seemed to have currency simply because it was for women and that women were deserving of different, or even special, treatment.

The argument is indeed put by some, including former male prison inspectors, that women are victims of men and therefore are different and deserve special treatment. This is a non sequitur. It does not follow that because many females are victims of men that they should be treated differently, for many males are victims of men, too, so why should the gender of the perpetrator make women a special case? To consider how absurd the argument is, ask this: do women who have been victims of the criminal actions of other women not deserve the same compassion as those who have been the victims of men? Of course they do.

It is also argued that women are often the sole person looking after a child and that this is deserving of special treatment, including the avoidance of a custodial sentence. While such family situations regularly occur, it is also the case that a convicted male is often the main breadwinner in a household and sending him to prison suddenly casts a family into abject poverty. The plain fact is that incarcerating anyone can have social repercussions, with negative impacts on children and other family members. Establishing unbending rules for sentencing is a recipe for disaster – better we leave it to the judges and sheriffs to take each case on its own merits.

There is no equivalent proposal I know of to demolish any male prison and replace it with new styles of punishment and correction across Scotland. Much as penal reform is a sign of a civilised society, I think that were the same proposals put forward for male prisons they would be laughed out of court.

I have visited Cornton Vale and I know of its sad reputation, but I have no doubt that any new secure unit that would be required to replace it for the murderers, or the violent and repeat offenders, would soon earn its own bad reputation.

Introducing far better drug rehabilitation and improved social care for suicide risks (often as a result of severe depression) is long overdue and would undoubtedly help to reduce crime levels, but if it is good for women it should also be good for men.

Rather than lose Elish Angiolini’s report in some file marked “nice but unaffordable ideas”, better still would be to invite her to conduct a similar review of male prisons with a view to having solutions that work across the whole prison estate. In doing that, the case for bulldozing Cornton Vale would make more sense and get my support.

Final countdown

MY tickets are booked. I was meant to be working in Botswana on the weekend of the cup final, but now I’ll be making the long arduous journey to Hampden Park to see the first Hibs v Hearts cup final for more than 100 years.

Moving it to Murrayfield would make no difference to me and I happen to think that for the players Hampden must be their field of dreams rather than the home of rugby – unless some of them want to handle the ball. I can understand local councillors and Edinburgh worthies saying Murrayfield makes more sense, but since when has sense had anything to do with football?

If it were the cold, calculating sense of weighing up the risks and costs – and the fact that I don’t have an idea of how I’ll get a ticket for the game yet – I’d be staying in Botswana.