Prison watchdogs have given a glowing report to HMP Cornton Vale – but said the NHS needs to speed up support for some of the most mentally vulnerable prisoners.
Reduced violence and pre-release planning were among aspects lauded by HM Inspectorate of Prisons for Scotland (HMIPS) in a report published this week.
They visited the women’s prison on in October 2020 as part of visits to jails across the country to check that the correct treatment of prisoners and the conditions in which they were being held had continued during the pandemic.
In their report the inspectors had high praise for the Cornton Vale team – but said some prisoners with psychiatric issues needed more help from outside sources.
Dealing with women with mental health problems has traditionally been a major issue at the prison.
Drug and alcohol abuse is often seen in women being admitted to the jail, however past studies have found that there is also a high incidence of women who have experienced physical, mental and sexual abuse at some point in their lives, or have underlying mental health conditions.
They inspectors said: “We found a great deal to commend and applaud at HMP YOI Cornton Vale.
“However, we continue to have concerns that the lack of high security psychiatric care options for women in Scotland may leave women remaining in HMP YOI Cornton Vale at times in segregation, when a specialist psychiatric care setting would be more appropriate to their care needs.
“NHS Forth Valley need to develop an escalation process for those experiencing delays in accessing appropriate treatment.
“Although these and other action points were identified, the overriding impression gained by both HMIPS and HIS inspectors was of a prison moving forward with a professional, caring, and supportive regime being provided by SPS, NHS and education staff.
“We welcome the fact that many of the women, some of whom were quite vulnerable with complex mental health needs, were themselves quick to recognise and appreciate the care and support being shown to them.”
The prison was said to be “calm and orderly” during the visit and the visitors were impressed with the care and compassion shown by staff and the efforts to engage prisoners in activities – despite the restricted range available during ongoing construction of the new national facility on the site.
The report added: “The management team are to be congratulated on their communication and engagement with prisoners and staff, which was appreciated by everyone spoken to in the prison. The health and wellbeing survey and follow-up focus groups asking prisoners about the care they had received in HMP YOI Cornton Vale demonstrated the SPS and NHS teams’ commitment to the principle of joint continuous improvement.
“Indeed there was a strong sense of the SPS and NHS teams working well together to keep prisoners safe. Inspectors noted that the standards of cleanliness and approach to infection control were excellent.”
The inspectors welcomed the development of a “trauma-informed” environment with planned training for the SPS and NHS staff in gender specific approaches, and in particular for dealing with multifaceted complex needs.
They added: “It was pleasing to see mental health staff were involved in the assessment process for the SPS Suicide Strategy – Talk to Me.
“HMIPS welcomes the significant reduction in levels of violence achieved over the last two years and the positive approach adopted to the complaints process. We particularly appreciate that pre-release planning was provided for both convicted and remand prisoners and encourage a similar approach by all prisons.
“We will continue to monitor the development of the women’s estate and look forward to seeing HMP YOI Cornton Vale develop further.”
An NHS Forth Valley spokesperson said: “Both NHS Forth Valley and HMP Cornton Vale acknowledge the concern over the lack of high security psychiatric care options for women in Scotland and the potential impact this may have on the small number of women who require to be treated in these settings.
“There are a number of medium and low secure mental health care facilities in Scotland and women who require high security psychiatric care can be referred to specialist mental health facilities in other parts of the UK.
“NHS Forth Valley will review the need to develop an escalation process for those experiencing delays in accessing high secure psychiatric treatment.”
The Scottish Government and the Scottish Prison Service have plans for a new model of custody for women in Scotland and a smaller national prison facility is currently being built on the grounds of HMP Cornton Vale which will accommodate around 80 women. Two smaller Community Custody Units (CCUs) are being created in Dundee and Maryhill, Glasgow, each accommodating around 20 women.