Student essay competition prize winner’s entry

Late last year we announced the winners of our student essay competition held for students across Scotland’s universities and colleges. This week we bring you the second winning entry, the runner up.

Kirsty Morris is in her 2nd year of an Law(LLB) with Business and Management undergraduate degree at the University of Glasgow.

 ‘Are there more effective ways than prison to reduce reoffending among women in Scotland?’ Discuss

More women than ever are entering the Scottish criminal justice system. Overcrowding in prisons caused by this steep rise in numbers contributes to ineffective attempts at rehabilitation and resultantly recidivism rates remain extremely high: 70% of women imprisoned for less than 3 months reoffend within two years.[1] It seems imperative that this issue be examined in order to determine if there are more effective ways to reduce reoffending in female offenders than prison. In order to reach a conclusion on this matter it is necessary to examine the effects of prison on female offenders, upon which a comparison can then be drawn about the effectiveness of alternatives to prison. Alternatives that will be discussed and analysed include community justice centres, drug rehabilitation and community orders. Moreover, other nations can be examined in order to see if they more effectively deal with female offenders and if Scotland can learn anything from their example.

It seems challenging from the onset to provide any argument that prison is the best place for reducing reoffending rates in female offenders given the following statement: ‘the more custodial sentences a women has served, the more likely it is that she will reoffend’.[2] The stark meaning of this is by no means one of a kind: it has been restated in varying forms by many experts in the field, such as the chair of the Commission on Women Offenders, Dame Elish Angiolini.[3] Thus, it must be questioned why this is the case, before looking at alternatives to prison.


Mental health disorders affect a staggeringly large two-thirds of female prisoners, according to the NHS.[4] In fact, in HMP Cornton Vale this figure sits at 80%.[5] These high figures can be attributed to worries that women have in prison, about their families, finances, housing, being victimized in prison and from suffering a bad history outside of prison, often to do with abuse, drugs or alcohol. Prison contributes to mental health problems since it is an unhealthy environment to be treated in and the worries caused by prison make it very difficult to do an effective rehabilitation work to reduce reoffending.


Secondly, a history of drug and alcohol abuse is common amongst female offenders. In a survey, 60% of female offenders admitted they were under the influence of drugs at the time of their offence, and another 42% admitted being drunk during this time.[6] The Commission on Women Offenders found that these issues could be better addressed in the community. If this problem is ineffectively addressed in prisons, recidivism is likely, especially since the influence of drugs is heavily attributable to female crime rates. Moreover, ‘53% of women in prison reported having experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse as a child’, according to the Prison Reform Trust.[7] There is therefore a link between abuse in childhood and offending in adulthood. Additionally, witnessing abuse or being abused as a child can increase the likelihood of being abused by a partner as an adult.[8] This could mean that they are forced to commit crime by their partners or commit crime to gain money, particularly if there are children to provide for. Prison is a place to detain dangerous criminals and to punish people for the crimes they commit yet if many women have ended up in prison due to abuse, and for non-violent crime, then it seems unnecessary to punish and detain them in prison when what they ought to be receiving is help to combat the effects of abuse. Imprisonment will not adequately tackle these issues but in fact cause more harm, and lead to recidivism as a result.


Lastly, absence from home can lead to women reoffending. Due to the sheer lack of female prisons it is highly probable that a female offender will be placed far away from their home and family, meaning they lack the support and comfort of loved ones. This distance will be detrimental to their mental health and their path to a life free from crime. However, to combat this issue video conferencing has been used at HMP Cornton Vale to facilitate better communication between offenders and their families.[9] While this reduces the negative impact of prison in terms of family relations, it can still be argued that any distance away from home and children will have negative consequences on women, and they should thus be treated in their community. It is also more likely for women than for men for a family to break up due to their imprisonment. Conflict in a marriage and a poor parent child bond, which can both be caused by imprisonment, are contributing factors to reoffending.[10] This again proves the damning effect of prison on both women and their families. Moreover, only 11% of women were helped with housing issues whilst in prison in 2012.[11] It is then no surprise that ‘30% of women in prison lose their accommodation while in prison and some of them lose all their possessions too’.[12] When they are released from prison, the loss of their home or possessions undoubtedly greatly hinders their reintegration back into society and some may regress back to crime as a result.


Since ‘very few women need to be in prison for reasons of public protection and the pains of imprisonment are more acute for women than men’[13] alternatives to prison can be looked at as a way of reducing recidivism rates in Scotland’s female offenders. The Commission of Women Offenders Report of 2012 recommended that the Scottish government should use more community justice centres to help women, with one such project being given a particular mention for its effectiveness.[14] The Edinburgh Willow Project aims to address the health and welfare needs of women, and reduce reoffending. It helps women in Edinburgh or women who are returning here from prison. This programme offers women the chance of educational opportunities, food and nutrition, build their confidence and help them deal with past experiences that may be traumatic.[15] It has been widely commended for helping women to stop reoffending. Linda Irvine, a Strategic Programme Manager for Mental Health and Wellbeing at NHS Lothian commented that ‘Willow is a truly innovative project that has helped make a real difference to the lives of women’.[16] The Willow Project is an effective alternative to prison and this is most exemplified through a participant’s experience of such a scheme: “Without this project I would be offending again. I would be in jail”.[17] 218 Service in Glasgow offers similar help to the Edinburgh Willow Project and has also seen positive results with 83% of participants showing a significant decrease in their use of drugs and/or alcohol.[18] Thus, the benefit of these programmes to women is huge since it works to reduce reoffending and offers much needed support and help on how to improve their lives. Therefore, participation in this type of project could prove much more effective than prison for reducing reoffending rates.


In general, community-based projects are better than prison since it allows women to stay close to their home and families. This will improve mental health and enable them to move away from offending. As a related point, around 30% of children with imprisoned parents will develop mental health problems as well as physical problems, and they are at a higher risk of ending up in prison themselves.[19] Therefore, it is not only of benefit to female offenders to be offered an alternative to prison, but it is also important in keeping the next generation out of the criminal justice system.


The Commission on Women Offenders recommended that more community sentences be used as an alternative to prison. These include ‘unpaid work and intensive interventions to stop offending’.[20] The women who participated in this type of alternative found they were able to develop skills for a life free from crime, combat additions and build confidence. Additionally, they are giving something back to the community rather than using up valuable government money in prison. The positive effect of community sentences can thus be seen as an effective alternative to prison in reducing recidivism levels.


Drug rehabilitation is a critical need for women entering the criminal justice system since the influence of drugs is a significant contributing factor to crime rates amongst females.  Drug Treatment and Testing Orders (DTTO) are a very effective alternative to custodial sentences with regards to drug treatment. This programme is provided to drug-misusers who commit crime to fund their habit. It provides regular drug testing and reviews of this by the sentencer throughout the order. In a 2008 pilot scheme run by the government, drug use and offending was found to have fallen. Additionally, some said that their health had improved and that their lives had been changed for the better.[21] Therefore, this alternative to prison can be seen as beneficial to women since it keeps them out of an unhealthy prison environment and keeps them with their families, which generally improves mental health. However, women, more so than men, find it difficult to meet the requirements of DTTO, and are more likely to breach these requirements than men.[22] Thus, the effectiveness of this method to combat drug misuse is limited since some women do not complete it.


Although there is much evidence suggesting that prison does not work for women, the removal of custodial sentences for female offenders in Scotland at present seems far reached. Additionally, for violent female offenders, who, in 2010/11 constituted 2% of the female prison population[23], prison is likely the correct place. Therefore, it is necessary to look at how prisons could be improved as an alternative to their current state, and an international comparison can be drawn in order to see if there are any effective methods employed by other nations inside of prison that are not used by Scotland for combatting reoffending in women. Visiting arrangements for female prisoners and their families can be assessed when deciding if Scotland could follow the example of other nations. Hinesburg Prison in Sweden contains a small flat with a garden where children can stay with their mothers for an overnight visit. This maintains the bond between the mother and child, and can reduce the distressing effect of separation for both parties[24]. Scotland does not offer this service, and for children visiting their mothers in prison, visit times will only be short in comparison, as well as limited to a smaller space, making Sweden more effective in terms of visitation policy. Canada too, offers an effective way of helping women to see their families: ‘most of the Federal institutions in Canada have private family visit units where families can stay in private with their imprisoned family member for up to 72 hours’.[25] Such visits in an environment that does not have the feel of a prison and that is in privacy can be more beneficial than visits taking place for a shorter time inside the prison and the importance of having a good visit cannot be underestimated: Prison Advice UK comments that ‘good visits contribute to better mental health and reduced suicides in custody’.[26] Scotland does not provide the facilities for families to stay with female prisoners in private for an extended period of time. Therefore, although it has been established that alternatives to prison are better for women, if Scotland’s prisons allowed visits similar to the nature of those described above then they would be better for women than that of the current situation, and this would lead to less reoffending.


Prison design and security can be evaluated in an attempt to discover if Scottish prisons could do more for women. The UK prison system as a whole can be viewed as ‘a system largely designed by men for men’, according to the Corston Report,[27] with female prisons having little distinction between them and that of men’s. Other countries provide a better prison service for women, by accommodating for their needs more. Halle prison in Schleswig Holstein in Germany has a piano room and a large garden. In Western Australia at Boronia Pre- Release Centre there are ‘pleasant gardens and well maintained houses that more closely resembled a well-kept suburban landscape than institutional setting.’[28] Both of these facilities are examples of good practice when it comes to prison design and security as it is purpose built for women’s needs and helps them to reintegrate back into society more as their facilities try to replicate normal life inside prison. Additionally, this low security approach is appropriate for women since the vast majority are not violent offenders. The UK offers little in the way of providing an appropriate gender based setting for women to serve their sentence. If they attempted to replicate the environment seen here in Halle Prison and Boronia Pre- Release Centre, this in turn will allow better reintegration of women into society and lower recidivism rates.


In summary, it seems impossible to show that prison effectively combats reoffending in female offenders. While 70% of offenders who receive a three-month sentence or less reoffend within two years, this number is significantly lower for those given a community service order at 27%.[29] Additionally, with the cost of reoffending over a ten-year period being £75,000, there is an urgent need for reform in order to save precious government resources.[30] The Commission on Women Offenders showed that women have complex needs which would be more adequately met in a community setting rather than a prison. Community justice centres are proving very effective in reducing drug and alcohol abuse and improving mental health. Conversely, rates of mental heath problems and substance abuse in prison remain high and in some cases are rising. Drug Treatment and Testing Orders and community sentences have also proven effective in helping women to lead a crime free life. While it can be firmly concluded that there are more effective alternatives to prison, the current prison system could do more to reduce reoffending in women by allowing easier reintegration into society, better links with family and a more gender specific approach. Several other nations demonstrate good practise in all of these aspects and Scotland and the UK alike could learn from their example.












Commission on Women Offenders,


Corston Report

International Review of Women’s Prison


[1], Page 21



[4], page 4

[5], page 20

[6], Page 20



[9], page 10

[10], page 22


page 3


page 23


[14], Page 7




[18], page 26

[19], page 3

[20], page 41


[22], page 6

[23] page 18

[24] page 5

[25], page 6

[26] Page 9

[27] page 2

[28] page 6

[29], page 21

[30], page 21