A step in the right detention

Credit: Rhiannon Doherty

Jen Bowey
Writer

Scotland’s new community women’s prisons should be met with commendation, not controversy

The Scottish government has unveiled plans to open two Community Custody Units (CCU) to house low-risk female prisoners, one of which will be located in Maryhill at the site of the former Maryhill Health Centre. The Maryhill site will be designed to house approximately 20 women and is due to be open by 2020.

Cabinet Secretary for Justice Michael Matheson recently stated that instances of reoffending are significantly lower when a community sentence has been served rather than a prison sentence, and that prison sentences should only be resorted to when alternatives are availability.

The announcement of plans to open these facilities in Glasgow and Dundee brings into question the contentious debate of whether a sentence should take the form of punishment or rehabilitation. Many believe that Community Custody Units like the ones that have been proposed in Scotland allow offenders an “easy” sentence, with one Twitter user quipping “Can I book a holiday there?” Traditional criminal justice systems have long advocated punishment in the form of incarceration as the appropriate sentence for the majority of crimes, however, in a bid to reduce instances of reoffending, the government is developing new ways to serve sentences with an emphasis on rehabilitation and reintroduction to the community, rather than punishment.

A drop-in information evening was held on 6 March to inform people living in the Maryhill area about the plans. Despite representatives from the Scottish Prison Services emphasising that the CCU will not be an open prison and that inmates will be very closely monitored as they reintegrate into the community, there has been some controversy from locals over the plans. Locals in Dundee, the proposed city for the second CCU, have expressed their disapproval for the plans stating that their area is being treated as a “dumping ground”.

Despite the understandable knee-jerk response from locals to news that prisoners are to be housed in their local area, experimental new prison facilities like the CCU’s proposed in Scotland are actually invariably positive developments in our country’s prison system. It has been proven time and time again that traditional prison sentences characterised by strict incarceration are, in fact, antiquated. The recent re-incarceration of James Bulger’s murderer Jon Venables, the second time he has reoffended since serving his initial sentence, exemplifies the problems with the current criminal justice system that has repeatedly neglected to learn from its own mistakes. Instead of reacting with outrage at the idea of these unconventional detention units opening in Scotland, we should praise them as the much-needed advancement of a justice system that has failed us for so long.

It’s about time that people started to view criminals not as one homogenous group who all deserve to be condemned to the same punishment. Of course, some crimes justify a long prison sentence. Some criminals are deemed too dangerous to live freely in society and, therefore, must be incarcerated for public safety. This should not, however, be the case for all criminals. It is far more productive to employ practices of rehabilitation in order to reintroduce those who have committed mere misdemeanours into society and, consequently, relieve some of the pressure on our overcrowded prisons. For too long the term criminal justice has been synonymous with punishment. Now, when a government introduces progressive plans, such as those for the CCU’s in Scotland, they are met with a backlash from those who protest that these new units do not facilitate a harsh enough punishment for the criminals that will soon inhabit them. What we must ask ourselves, however, is what the true purpose of the criminal justice system should be. Should it be designed to punish, despite proof that this technique creates more problems than it solves? Or should it aim to alleviate the burden of crime on society through other means?