Cornton Vale Correspondence From Angie Zelter

21st April 2000

To:- Ms. Kate Donegan,
Governor, HM Prison Cornton Vale,
Cornton Rd, Stirling,
FK9 5NU.

Dear Ms. Donegan,

I note and thank you for your letter of 29 March 2000 in which you take on board some of the criticisms contained in my Prison Report. I felt, however, that I should reply because there are several instances where you seem to be implying that I have not told the truth. You have done this by making statements that are in complete opposition to my factual assertions or by saying there is no evidence for my assertions which thus means that you are not taking my report as any kind of evidence. I wish therefore to say quite clearly that I do not retract any part of my original report. I tried my best to be as fair and accurate as possible and notwithstanding your comments my criticisms still remain.

At several points you have said that there is ‘no evidence’ of the particular problem I have raised or you are ‘entirely satisfied’ with the state of affairs. Well, I am not satisfied with the state of affairs and I consider that my own observations and reports are evidence of a kind that should be considered along with other evidence that might be forthcoming. Such aspersions of untruthfulness can only provide a dangerous disincentive to prisoners to speak out freely. It is hard to find the courage to speak out especially when I may have to return to Cornton Vale and face the staff and yourself again. I may appear confident and able to handle all this with ease but all human beings are vulnerable and I am no exception. I find it distressing that so many of the points I raised are disputed.

You have, for instance, made statements that this or that is arranged or is happening as if that deals with the problem. For instance, you said ‘Residential staff have responsibility for arranging a daily cleaning party’. That may well be true but the fact remains that a daily cleaning party does not daily do its job i.e. rubbish was often left on the ground for several days at a stretch. Or, your statement ‘Exercise is a statutory obligation and is made available as required on a daily basis’ – while this statement may be true the practice was different, in my experience it was made available three days out of every four. Then again, your statement ‘There is no difficulty in relation to airmail stamps and envelopes which are available through the canteen’ – you may have solved this problem now but at the time there were numerous difficulties.

Just because something is meant to be happening and you have ordered it, or there is some policy about it, does not mean it is being implemented. This is an important point and leads to much frustration on the part of prisoners as well as, no doubt, on your side too. Maybe the unbelieving tone in which you reply to some of my allegations is accounted for by the fact that clear guidelines and procedures are in fact not being implemented.

When I made a formal complaint about lack of access to toilet facilities I was told (in the answer to the first level of complaint) that I would be allowed out of my cell whenever I needed to go to the toilet. This reply is similar to your letter where you say ‘Access to showers, baths and toilet facilities throughout the day is unrestricted’. This may be policy but is not in fact implemented. However desperate I was to go to the toilet after meals I was not allowed out. I was told to wait until the staff came back on duty after their breakfast, lunch or tea break. I was told, in discussion with staff who were processing my complaint, that I would never have to wait more than 20 minutes, but after meal-times I often had to wait an hour or more until staff were actively around to let us out to use the toilets. This is not unrestricted access.

Your comment ‘During the night the majority of women here have access to the toilet via a process of remote electronic unlocking called night san” and linking this to the issue of cell-sharing and security is also misleading. As far as I was aware none of the women on remand (and remember my report was about the remand wing at Cornton Vale – I have not had any direct experience of the convicted wing) had access to night-san whether they were in single or shared cells. I was in a single cell for around 11 weeks of my 19 weeks in Cornton Vale and certainly never had access to ‘night-san’. I am not disputing that you may well have a policy of night-san for single cells but I am re-iterating that I never experienced it. I find it depressing, wearying and frustrating that you say you were unable to substantiate that I frequently had to wait 4 hours for night-time toilet access. How would you be able to substantiate my claims unless you have a means of monitoring the time and content of the calls made by prisoners through the intercom and also then note the time when the night staff come and let us out? Are records kept of this? Have records been kept of my complaint form about toilet access problems? How can I as a prisoner prove what I say? I could get witness statements from the two women who I shared my cell with and who witnessed my calls to go to the toilet and who also helped me monitor the time delay. I could also provide witness statements from many of my visitors who heard about the problem and saw me upset and frustrated about it. I am happy to do this if you will read them and then believe me. What is disturbing however, is why I should be disbelieved? I know from our monitoring of other women in our Nuclear Crime Prevention campaign called Trident Ploughshares that they all experience the same toilet difficulties. Sylvia Boyes for instance has made many complaints on this very issue.

When I discussed, with staff, the issue of the long-delays in being released to the toilet, especially in conjunction with my official complaint form, I was eventually told that everyone knew it was a problem, they were aware of it, did not like it but that nothing could be done because staff had to have time off to eat in the daytime and because there was always a long gap in the late evening when the unit staff went off duty and the night staff then replaced them and in any case it would all be solved very soon with the new remand wing being built with in-cell sanitation. When in prison and faced with such a problem it is no good continually beating one’s head against the wall. The problem was acknowledged, I had complained, I therefore decided I had to learn to deal with it rather than perhaps going down the road of frustration leading to anger – though I have to say the whole experience gave me insight and understanding into why prisoners sometimes smear their cells with excrement.

It is unrealistic to expect that prisoners, however confident and assertive, can continue to complain or to provide proof of their experiences. I was reduced, as I said in my original report, to using the cardboard potty. I could not continue to lose sleep and pace up and down for hours waiting to see how long it would take staff to come and release me nor to continue to make complaints. I did this frequently at first and then just did what the other women did – I gave up and used the potty.

This acquiescence in the system is an issue that must be acknowledged. The fact that prisoners complain more at the beginning of their stay and then stop doing so after they have been there for some time is often not because their needs and problems have been addressed but because they are worn down by the process, do not want to be labelled as ‘trouble-makers’ and because they have to keep themselves sane by adapting.

On several occasions you ask why I did not speak to you directly. This appears to me to be a ridiculous question but I suppose from your point of view, knowing the prison and feeling at ease in it and being in a position of power, you have had no direct experience of just how long it takes to work out, as a prisoner, how the prison operates and who is who. You also, perhaps do not know how much courage and strength it takes to insist on one’s rights. It is only in the last few years that I have found the confidence to speak out, to keep accurate notes, to ensure that I tell visitors and others about the conditions, do formal complaints etc. The first few times I was in prison, I was just surviving – I am now learning how to live and to continue to be myself whilst in prison. Nevertheless, I admit to still feeling isolated and vulnerable and not often feeling strong enough to confront the prison authorities on everything or to follow it right through. However, this admittance should not invalidate my testimony and should not be used to suggest that I have lied.

So, why did I not alert you personally to my concerns? Perhaps you need to ask how a prisoner gets access to the Governor? In Cornton Vale, unlike some prisons that I have experienced, there is no regular talk/discussion session with the Governor where one can raise problems in an informal and less intimidating manner than through a formal complaints procedure. Everything is done through the unit staff and they see their duty as to protect you, the Governor, from prisoners’ complaints. I only learnt about the fast-track complaint to the Governor late in my stay at Cornton Vale. It is difficult even to know who the Governor is. The Deputy and Duty Governors are all referred to as the Governor. The prisoners in the remand wing do not have the depth of knowledge about the system as do those in the convicted wing. Information is hard to get whilst in prison – one picks it up here and there and it takes a while to sort out the correct from the incorrect. I was only introduced to you at one of the multicultural meetings, towards the end of my remand period and just before I became fully occupied in my trial that lasted a month. You will perhaps remember that, as a participant in that excellent forum, I raised many of the same issues that I raised in my report.

There is another point here about the details of events I witnessed and your surprise at my not raising these issues with you personally which is apart from the fact that I had no personal relationship or access to you whilst in prison apart from the one meeting mentioned above. On the issues of racism, lack of medical care, and peeping toms, I did raise these issues with various unit staff members, but was informed that I could not speak on behalf of other prisoners – the prisoner had to make the complaints directly themselves. I understood the need for prisoners to deal with their problems directly themselves but nevertheless felt obliged to speak out on occasions and also felt entitled to be able to raise some of these issues in a general way in my report in order to alert those responsible, including yourself. When the next report about any of these issues comes to light you will not now be able to say that no-one else has raised these concerns before.

I also find it disturbing to think that you should feel that I should have raised these issues with you personally given there is no easily accessible and supportive forum in which to do so. The fact that I raised many of these issues with Prison Visitors , personal visitors and within the ‘safe’ environment of the multicultural group may perhaps provide a possible way forward. Perhaps there could be a discussion group formed within the Remand Centre, that meets once a week and allows free discussion. Perhaps it could have the very same aims and objectives of the multicultural group which I was very impressed with. There is no reason why such aims and objectives could not apply to a Problems Group or Community Group that all women on remand could be invited to. Most of the women I met on remand would respond well to such an invitation. Perhaps some specially motivated staff along with some of the social workers, pastoral workers, or prison visitors could help facilitate this process and perhaps you yourself could go along sometimes or even set up a regular surgery time to which any prisoner can have free access to you.

To end on a positive note I am glad that at least some of the criticisms I made are being addressed properly and I do appreciate the efforts being made to continually improve matters. I only hope that if I ever have to spend time on remand again in Cornton Vale that I will be able to report a marked improvement in standards.

With best wishes and in peace and love,
Angie Zelter.

Chief Executive of the Scottish Prison Service,
Chief Inspector of Prisons for Scotland,
Scottish Human Rights Centre,
Prison Reform Trust,
Howard League for Penal Reform,
Women In Prison,
Prison Ombudsman.