En suites, yoga and pastel shades: radical women’s prison to open in Scotland

Lilias Centre in Glasgow focuses on independence and rehabilitation – experts say more places in such facilities neededWith front doors freshly painted in mint green, lemon and mauve and young cherry trees planted around the quiet central courtyard, the Lilia…

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With front doors freshly painted in mint green, lemon and mauve and young cherry trees planted around the quiet central courtyard, the Lilias Centre in Glasgow resembles an upmarket cul-de-sac rather than a prison.

At this pioneering women’s community custody unit, the architecture of incarceration is at a minimum. There are no bars on windows, high fences or reinforced locking systems. Instead, inmates access their individual rooms and communal spaces with a key card akin to one given to hotel guests. Only access to the street beyond is restricted.

This unit, a UK first and already attracting international interest, is part of what the Scottish government’s justice minister, Keith Brown, calls “a step change in the way Scotland supports women in custody”.

It comes after significant criticismof Scottish prisons in recent years over rising violence, overcrowding and crumbling buildings, and particular concern about the treatment of young people. Analysis last year revealed that 40% of prisoner deaths over the past decade were suicides, nearly half of those people under the age of 30.

Campaigners argue it has taken too long to get to this point and point out that only two of the promised five centres have been built so far, having initially been conceived in 2015 after the Scottish government shelved controversial plans for a women’s super-prison to replace the notorious Cornton Vale.

The Lilias Centre is made up of four houses with a capacity for six women in each, who will be encouraged to budget, shop, order groceries and cook for themselves. Each house has a well-equipped kitchen and attractive dining table set.

Gone are the usual institutional greys, replaced by walls and furnishings in warm pinks and bright citrus shades, with plenty of natural light. Each room has a comfortable bed, wardrobe and en-suite shower room; there are also a few studio flats for younger or more vulnerable inmates.

The Scottish Prison Service strategy for women is trauma-informed and gender specific, explains Sue Brookes, its director of strategy and stakeholder engagement. In practice this means units designed to promote independent living, deliberately offering choice and control over daily routines that gradually build confidence.

As well as making use of the small on-site health centre and staff trained in everything from yoga to boxercise, inmates will also be encouraged to make links with support services that can assist their transition beyond custody.

The inmates who are assessed as capable of managing the challenges of independent living here will be a mix of those on short sentences, who may serve the majority of their term at Lilias, and longer-term prisoners, including lifers, who are coming close to their parole date.

Staff, who have all specifically applied to work here, are specially trained in trauma and mindful that women in custody face extensive mental ill-health, while nearly half are flagged as having a potential learning difficulty. A study published last year also found that four in five female prisoners in Scotland have a history of significant head injury.

Brookes takes a likely complaint head-on: “I know some people will say ‘this is like a hotel, what about students and others who can’t afford to live like this?’ I’d say this is the right thing to do. It’s a ripple effect. If you treat people with worth and dignity it’s better for everyone: the inmate, their family and wider society.”

But how many women can a small bespoke facility like this actually help? There are currently about 290 women in custody in Scotland. The Lilias Centre, which opens to inmates on 24 October, has space for up to 24 women; its sister facility, the Bella Centre in Dundee, opened in August and houses up to eight. Both were subject to extensive and, in the case of Dundee, fractious community consultation.

Brookes says it is better to “think about throughput rather than static numbers” – but insists the aspiration is that “eventually every woman in prison will come through here”.

It’s a concern echoed by Emma Jardine, policy and public affairs adviser at Howard League Scotland, who said: “The new strategy for women in custody is founded on the principle that all services for women should take account of their likely experience of trauma and adversities, but the problem is, of course, that there’s only space for 14% of all the women in custody in these two new community custody units. We also mustn’t forget that 30% of all women in prison in Scotland are on remand.”

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