Jim Murphy has lined up with pro-independence women’s campaigners to call on the Scottish government to think again about the building of a new super-prison for female offenders.
Speaking at a lunch organised by the Scottish Parliamentary Journalists’ Association on Tuesday, the new Scottish Labour leader accused the Holyrood government of planning for failure, echoing the sentiments of a grassroots campaign against the proposal which has garnered support from women activists prominent in last year’s yes campaign.
“We’re imprisoning too many women, and too many mums in particular,” Murphy told the group. “The number of women in prison [in Scotland] has doubled since devolution and that’s not right.”
Critics of the proposed facility in Inverclyde, which will replace Scotland’s notorious Cornton Vale prison, say it runs contrary to the Scottish government’s own advice on treatment of women offenders. It commissioned a report by the former lord advocate Dame Elish Angiolini QC in 2012 which highlighted the need to invest in therapeutic services at a local level, with a role for a much smaller specialist facility for the minority of women offenders who pose a significant risk to the public.
Murphy insisted: “This isn’t about being soft on crime or hard on crime but when a dad goes to prison, in 95% of the cases the kid will stay with the mum. When a mum goes to prison, less than one in five kids will stay with their dad. This is about how we treat families and how we treat kids. And when you think that children who have parents that went to prison are themselves three times more likely to go to prison when they are an adult we are just genuinely getting something wrong here.”
The Edinburgh branch of Women for Independence – the non-aligned organisation that took a leading role in last year’s referendum debate – launched a campaign against the new prison in December, which has gathered support across the political spectrum. The Guardian understands that Michael Matheson, the new cabinet secretary for justice, has since then referred the decision back to his office.
At the beginning of January, Jim Murphy revealed that he planned to target the 190,000 mostly male voters who voted yes in last September’s referendum after deserting Labour, in the hope of securing an overall majority for his party. Responding to his announcement, Women for Independence activists interpreted it as a direct appeal to women who voted yes.
Marsha Scott of Women for Independence said: “If you look at the population of women who voted yes, and the groundswell of anger towards Better Together over their ‘eat your cereal’ advert, I can’t imagine that Jim Murphy’s campaign hasn’t realised that it has some work to do to show that Labour takes women’s views seriously. There’s no doubt that they are aware that this will play well to us.”
Maggie Mellon, a long-time campaigner on women’s imprisonment who has spearheaded the campaign from Edinburgh, cautioned: “This is not a party political issue but absolutely about what kind of society we want to build in Scotland, and how we support people at the hardest end of social injustice.
“As Jim Murphy’s party fuelled the rise in the prison population in Scotland and across the UK when in government, I hope this signals a seachange in policy.”
Former MSP and Women for Independence campaigner Carolyn Leckie welcomed Murphy’s support, saying: “It shows that we have influence and that people are listening to us. Hopefully Michael Matheson is listening too. It would be very courageous [to reject the plan] when the whole of the prison service is supporting it and there will be a lot of pressure on him to go ahead.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010