by Jenni Gunn, lead RISE candidate, Mid Scotland & Fife
The Russian novelist Fydor Dostoyevsky famously said; “The degree of civilisation in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”
If Dostoyevsky is correct, we need to take a long, hard look at our own society and ask ourselves frankly and honest: “is this good enough? Is this really the best that we can do?”
In light of recent reports about lack of timely access to sanitation, dozens of activists gathered outside of HMP Cornton Vale on Tuesday night to demand better conditions for inmates in Scotland’s only women’s prison.
The protest, organised by RISE Women, marked the third demonstration organised by the Network this month, and sought to highlight the plight of women living in confinement in Scotland.
Protestors also demanded a radical shake-up of the judicial system, which metes out custodial sentences to women who pose no threat to the general public.
I had the privilege of addressing the demonstration alongside former Scottish Socialist Party MSP Rosie Kane and RISE Glasgow candidate, Suki Sangha, at an event that I hope will help to foster a serious discussion about women’s incarceration in Scotland, which is currently the second highest in northern Europe.
Rosie Kane, who spent six days in the prison for refusing to pay a fine she received for protesting against Trident nuclear weapons, addressed the gathered activists in an emotionally charged and harrowing speech. Rosie spoke about her own experiences in Cornton Vale, and about the young, vulnerable, abused women that she met during her short stay in the facility. Rosie said:
“I didn’t meet one woman in Cornton Vale that hadn’t suffered abuse at the hands of a male partner, a family member.”
This goes to the heart of the issue: we are imprisoning women who are victims of abuse, who suffer from poor mental health, who are addicted to drugs: women who live in perpetual poverty, in communities plagued by violence and inequality.
It’s high time that we stopped imprisoning poor and desperate women. We need to address the root causes of women’s imprisonment—namely, economic and social inequality, which is a scourge upon our communities the length and breadth of Scotland.
Economic and social inequality is being exacerbated by an austerity agenda that doles out social violence upon all of our vulnerable people, but under which women are being targeted. Statistics have shown that cuts to welfare benefits are hitting women twice as hard as men.
Women make up 95 per cent of lone parents and 62 per cent of unpaid carers, a demographic disproportionately burdened by deep cuts in public spending. Austerity is nothing short of an assault on the living standards of women who depend on these vital services.
To add insult to injury, services that are tasked with protecting vulnerable women, such as Women’s Aid and Rape Crisis, are facing significant challenges from lack of funding. Whilst these organisations continue to be under-funded, and whilst poor women are plunged further into desperate situations by austerity cuts, there is little hope that we will break the cycle of violence, addiction, abuse and incarceration that affects women in some of Scotland’s poorest areas.
What is to be done? Our solution must be three fold. We must ensure that women in prison are held under conditions which do not violate their most basic universal rights to respect and dignity.
Secondly, we must challenge a system that punishes women punitively for non-violent crimes by holding our courts and our government to account, and by demanding alternatives to custodial sentences by investing in community programmes that are readily available to all in need, and that support women within their own communities.
Thirdly, we must fight austerity and attacks on our public services upon which so many vulnerable people rely on for survival. Progress is being made, but complacency, at this important juncture, is not an option.
The truth of the matter is that women are not the only people that our justice system is failing, and Scotland’s system is in need of serious and far reaching reform.
Suki Sangha, RISE Glasgow candidate and activist in RISE’s Women and BAME networks stated: “Being black, being a woman, being young and being poor does not make you a target…We need to take on a system in which people are dying in police custody, where women are locked up miles away from their families and their support networks, where young people are being arrested because of their political beliefs.”
The protest at Cornton Vale sought to address one important part of this failing system, but we have work to do in ensuring that our police, our courts and our government are serving the best interests of the people, and where prisoners are afforded their basic human right to dignity and respect.