HM Prison Cornton Vale
HM Prison Cornton Vale opened in 1975 as Scotland’s only dedicated facility for women prisoners. The first prisoners were transferred from Aberdeen Prison.
Original purpose and design
Originally designed to house short-term prisoners and young offenders, Cornton Vale was set up with five small dormitories intended to accommodate 20 women each. There was an emphasis on rehabilitation and skills training programs.
Changes over time
As Scotland’s female prison population grew, Cornton Vale became overcrowded and could no longer function as intended. Dormitories gave way to cells, more wings were constructed, and the rehabilitative regime was impacted.
Capacity and population
Though originally built for 100 prisoners, Cornton Vale now has an operational capacity of 309 women. However, in recent years it has held approximately 400 inmates consistently. At times the population has spiked to over 500 women sharing the cramped facility.
Facilities and services
basic facilities at Cornton Vale include prisoner accommodation, kitchen and dining areas, healthcare offices, laundry services, recreational spaces, workshops, educational classrooms, and visitor areas. Due to overcrowding, access can be extremely limited. Services are inadequate for rehabilitation and mental health needs.
Daily life and regimens
Women at Cornton Vale spend much of their day confined to crowded cells. Time out of cells is limited, with shortened opportunities for exercise, meals, programs, family visits and phone calls. Stress, anxiety and poor hygiene standards impact health and well-being.
Issues and Controversies
With hundreds of women sharing space built for fewer than 100, overcrowding exposes prisoners to health risks, increased violence and self-harm behaviors. Cells designed for one often house three inmates. Living conditions are poor and inhumane.
Treatment of women prisoners
Cornton Vale has faced strong criticism over mental health provisions, disciplinary measures and overall care of vulnerable inmates. Isolation practices and restraint against distressed prisoners have raised human rights concerns. Many women feel unsafe in the prison’s environment.
Drug abuse and mental health concerns
It is estimated over 70 percent of women at Cornton Vale suffer from addiction issues or mental illnesses. Their complex needs are not adequately addressed due to inadequate staff, resources and healthcare facilities. This causes severe distress and disciplinary incidents.
Calls for reform or closure
Women’s advocacy groups, government watchdogs and prisoner family members have called for drastic changes or complete shutdown of HM Prison Cornton Vale. But efforts to improve conditions have moved slowly while scrutiny and outrage escalates.
Investigations and inquiries
Various oversight agencies have investigated Cornton Vale following deaths in custody, human rights petitions and exposure of the prison’s failings. Whilst finding deplorable conditions, reports have issued recommendations for enhancements that are not legally enforceable.
Plans announced for improvements or replacement
In 2016 the Scottish Prison Service unveiled a masterplan for a new national facility to replace Cornton Vale by 2022. But subsequent plans revealed in 2020 instead propose building two smaller regional prisons for women over five years.
Progress made to date
Minor upgrades like repainting, camera installations and common room additions have provided minimal relief. Cell modifications and bolstered healthcare staffing are still needed. But major redevelopment timelines remain largely uncertain and inadequate.
Proposals under consideration
Ideas floated range from renovating and expanding current infrastructure to constructing decentralized “community custody units” across Scotland. Location feasibility studies and financing issues have slowed decisions around concrete building proposals.
Expectations and concerns going forward
Prisoner advocacy groups fear creative solutions will continue facing political roadblocks. But authorities cite complex policy and budget restrictions around upgrading 19th century infrastructure or developing modern, trauma-informed capacity. Delays keep hopes for change tentative.
HM Prison Cornton Vale has long outlived its usefulness, struggling with overpopulation and improper facilities for rehabilitating vulnerable women. Whilst its shocking conditions have prompted outrage, practical progress around replacements or improving services has stalled. With political will and innovative thinking, Scotland has an opportunity to develop truly humane, progressive options that serve both inmates and the public. Lives hang in the balance along this difficult road ahead.
What is the timeline for closing Cornton Vale?
There is no firm timeline for closing Cornton Vale. Current proposals suggest replacement facilities may be constructed over 5 years or more. The prison could remain open indefinitely depending on progress.
Have any prisoners died because of conditions at Cornton Vale? There have been over 5 deaths in custody at Cornton Vale since 2010, often ruled suicide or overdoses. Inmates and advocates charge that poor mental health care and unsafe environments contribute to these tragic losses of life.
Why is replacement taking so long when problems are well known? Though conditions have been unacceptable for years, major construction projects face considerable delays around financing, environmental impact studies, local opposition and more. New facilities require extensive planning.
What are prisoners doing to protest conditions at Cornton Vale? Inmates have submitted formal grievances, petitioned authorities through family members, gone on hunger strikes and even broken out of the facility. But their power is limited, making outside advocacy for reform essential.
Where will women be incarcerated if Cornton Vale closes before replacements exist? Without adequate capacity in place, closing Cornton Vale would require distributing women prisoners across men’s facilities on a temporary basis, which has its own legal and ethical challenges. There are no easy fixes.