Cornton Vale Correspondence from Kate Donegan, Governor

29th March 2000

Cornton Road, Stirling, FK9 5NU


Date: 29 March 2000


Dear Ms Zelter

I refer to my letter of 5 January 2000 and apologise for the delay in replying. I have now had the opportunity to explore your observations and offer the following comment.

In relation to health matters, it is perhaps unsurprising that in common with many women, you found the experience of a custodial remand to be stressful. Separation from friends and family, anxiety about what the future might bring and adjusting to a totally new environment with a group of complete strangers, perhaps inevitably impacts negatively on many individuals. In our experience, disrupted sleep patterns, headaches and general aches and pains result from both stress and for many, also from withdrawal from drugs or alcohol.

As you rightly observe many women come here with chronic physical, addiction and mental health problems which can generally be somewhat improved during their stay. Our aim is to provide a range of healthcare responses which will seek to address the many complex problems which are suffered by women on remand. This is a particularly challenging task, however, in relation to women who are in custody for comparatively short periods of time and whose problems are chronic and longstanding.

You will be aware of the fact that among other areas of the prison, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons has praised the transformation in our healthcare provision.

Access to showers, baths and toilet facilities throughout the day is unrestricted. As you know, we are extremely well provided for in terms of bath, shower and toilet facilities in Cornton Vale with one of each for every Unit of 6 or 7 cells. Cells are also fitted with wash-hand basins.

During the night the majority of women here have access to the toilet via a process of remote electronic unlocking called ‘night san’. Where women are sharing a cell, however, remote unlocking is not possible for fundamental security reasons. In these cases as you know, the night patrol will attend as soon as they can, to supervise toilet access. The night shift staff are routinely alerted to women who may have special problems and will ensure that they are given priority. For any others seeking access to the toilet during periods of lock up, staff make every effort to attend as quickly as they can.

The reason for our policy of cell sharing is to provide women with mutual companionship during the early and most stressful period of custody whether that is remand or convicted. We have found this mutual support system to be appreciated by women and to operate very successfully. We still retain single cells for those for whom sharing is not appropriate but in remand as you know, most women do share. The downside of sharing is that toilet access during the night is restricted.

I can assure you that the problems relating to restricted night time access are very well understood and recognised by me. Unfortunately, however, a choice has to be made between the huge benefits of cell sharing and the huge consequential disadvantage of not having immediate 24 hour toilet access. My particularly difficult dilemma has been to make that choice and I have chosen to opt for the demonstrable benefits of cell sharing.

Ideally, integral sanitation would be the norm in every cell and as you know, our new remand house which is due to open in the early summer, will provide integral sanitation in every cell. In the meantime, we do all that we can to overcome the practical problems for those who don’t have automatic night san access. Your points about disposal have already been addressed. I have, however, been quite unable to substantiate your claims that you regularly had to wait 4 hours for night time toilet access or indeed to have been subjected to 16 hour lock ups. Our regime is quite deliberately geared to maximise time out of cell and to minimise the shortfalls in toilet access for those who share cells.

Cornton Vale has 24 hour nursing presence and is very well resourced in terms of medical, psychiatric and psychology staff. There is no evidence that women who require to see a doctor are denied such access. Unless there is a very clear emergency, nursing staff will make an initial assessment of the problem and take action as appropriate. The Medical Officer holds clinics 6 days a week and a doctor is on call 24 hours per day. Our doctor also regularly consults in each House as well as in the Health Centre.

Given the very vulnerable and poor condition of many woman here, our response to illness is necessarily prompt and professional. I am entirely satisfied that medical and nursing treatment is readily available and of the highest standard. Your reference to the attention given to those women with addiction problems is as I would expect for that group shares the most complex and acute medical and psychological problems. Regular medication is crucial to their stability. As for the dentist, emergency cases i.e. acute dental pain are routinely given priority and until an emergency appointment is available, pain relief is given. This reflects normal practice in the community.

As to vitamin supplements, there is much debate in the healthcare world about whether supplements are necessary when a balanced diet is consumed. Our menus ensure a nutritional balance and therefore, arguably, extra vitamin supplementation for normally healthy people should not be necessary. Vitamin deficiency would be addressed by medical staff. I will, however, look at the possibility of making multivitamins available through the canteens for those who are prepared to purchase them.

With regard to the provision of medication at Court, protocols for safe dispensing are currently being reviewed by our national Healthcare Policy Group and Consultant Pharmacist. The sad reality is that because medication of virtually any kind represents a form of currency, we have to be sure that drugs are held safely and consumed by only those for whom they are intended.

Your positive remarks in relation to pre-natal care have been passed on. I agree that standards are very high in this area. Similarly high standards of care are provided post-natally and for mothers and babies at every stage. Paradoxically, Cornton Vale gives the overwhelming majority of mothers and babies a much better start in life than they might have experienced trying to cope with limited support on the outside.

I insist on maintaining the highest possible standards of general cleanliness throughout the prison on the basis that we must all live and work together 24 hours per day and the better the quality of the environment, the better for us all. The perennial problem of individuals throwing litter out of windows is regrettably common to all closed prisons. Residential staff have responsibility for arranging a daily cleaning party – but I would prefer that women grow to respect their environment and the quality of life of others and therefore to use litter bins accordingly – a much more difficult problem to solve.

Striking the right balance between the rights of smokers and non-smokers is notoriously difficult. As you say, we offer non-smoking cells and smoking is not permitted in sitting rooms for an hour before meals. We have raised the issue with the police for consideration of no smoking in their transport. Otherwise, we continue to reinforce our smoking policy and seek to educate all smokers about the appalling risk to their health and to others of their habit.

Exercise is a statutory obligation and is made available as required on a daily basis. The time set aside for exercise each day may vary somewhat to accommodate other activities, but I am fully aware of the need to provide time outdoors for those who want it. As you say, uptake is erratic and lots of cajoling and persuading may still only encourage a few women to go outside. The refurbished Remand House will have a garden rather than a paved exercise yard. We made this decision for a variety of reasons not the least of which was to tempt women into the fresh air rather than staying inside to smoke….

I am satisfied that our menus are put together in such a way that they are nutritionally balanced and provide the range of vitamins, minerals, fibre and so on required to maintain health. Those on special diets (including vegan) are catered for routinely and catering staff will discuss individual preferences when compiling a menu sheet for such individuals. We also have a food committee on which there is prisoner representation and caterers also spend time in the Houses listening to consumer views.

Your reference to a shortage of bowls and mugs is explained by women keeping these items in their rooms rather than returning them to the pantry for washing and storage. It is a frustrating problem which is easily overcome by women routinely returning items to a central point. Food handling hygiene training is now routine with all the requisite supports in place.

The stock in our House canteens (shops) is a reflection of what the women want to spend their money on. The reality is that fizzy drinks, chocolate and so called ‘junk’ foods are popular. There is very little demand for dried fruit, nuts and fresh fruit juice. Those who want to buy the latter, however, may do so through the sundry purchase scheme.

I have nevertheless instigated a review of canteen stock and of the sundry purchase process – both of which I am sure – would benefit from upgrading.

I agree that the bureaucratic system which we currently operate would benefit considerably from simplifying and I have asked for a comprehensive review to take place. The present telephone card contract is, I understand, up for national review in the autumn. The point you made about cost is fairly universally acknowledged.

In relation to your mail, any item received after a prisoner is released is routinely returned to our office for redirection to the address held on our computer database. A record is also kept of such letters. I cannot account for any failure in your case.

Remand prisoners have access to the gym, cookery classes, art classes, hairdresser and beauty therapy, yoga, stained glass class, one to one and small groupwork with the occupational therapist and T.V. in-cell. When the new remand house re-opens, work will also feature in the regime for those who request it.

At the time of your imprisonment, remand numbers were at record levels which inevitably impacted on access to some classes. Attendance therefore took place, at times, on a rotational basis. The reality is that time in custody and especially in remand, often weighs heavily for many women. In our experience, it is extremely difficult to motivate remand prisoners to participate in organised activities as they are either too disinterested or too unwell to be bothered.

Very few remand women volunteer to go to the gym whatever time of the day it is offered. A variety of different means have been employed to encourage attendance but uptake is poor – often for the same reasons as failure to pick up on the other opportunities on offer. The provision of gym kit is under review.

Library provision for the entire establishment is under review.

The visits area is much smaller than we would wish but is a pleasantly furnished, clean and bright facility. It is not true that prisoners may not hug their visitors – but open mouth kissing is not permitted as this is a common method of passing drugs. I am satisfied that ordinarily, the method by which prisoners’ visitors are identified and recorded causes no difficulties. In your case, the exceptional number of potential visitors who presented themselves caused confusion on a number of occasions.

In relation to your defence papers, I am assured that staff did not, as you suggest, read the content word for word. As you say the prison dealt well with your legal and defence needs.

In relation to the availability of law books in the library, I await a central policy decision.

The matter of smoking in police vehicles is clearly not within my gift to decide. Concerns have, however, been raised with the police and the smoking policy will be an issue for them.

Prisoners arriving from Court are provided with tea and sandwiches in Reception at Cornton Vale. They will have had a meal at Court (albeit, usually pie, beans, chips or something similar) and if arriving from Glasgow Sheriff Court will have been supplied with a packed tea of sandwiches, fruit and crisps.

Where it is known that a prisoner is likely to be attending Court on a daily basis over a substantial period, arrangements to have a meal left in the Remand Unit for their return should be made. Hygiene regulations may dictate that this be in the form of salad or other cold choice but this could easily be stored in the fridge in the House pantry area. Prisoners are not required to beg to be provided with food.

In relation to the provision of written materials in a range of languages, I understand that work is in hand centrally to provide translations to all prisons in Scotland. Locally, speech translators can be organised as required but clearly not on a 24 hour basis. We have an excellent multicultural group which acts as a social and support group for our foreign national women. It is also a most useful forum for raising and resolving problems.

There is no difficulty in relation to airmail stamps and envelopes which are available through the canteen.

All of our foreign national prisoners receive phonecalls from and can make phonecalls to their families at State expense. This is normal practice.

I am disappointed that you did not make me aware, at once, of any racial abuse which was allegedly witnessed by you. Our community is based on sincere efforts to ensure mutual respect, courtesy and civility and I do not tolerate racial, cultural or religious intolerance of any kind. I refute your claim that dietary and other ethnic needs are not met.

Statistics are in fact maintained locally on the range and number of complaints generated and I receive a monitoring sheet quarterly.

In relation to prisoners with literacy problems, either staff or other prisoners (depending on individual preference) will commonly write a dictated complaint. We encourage this.

Room and personal searches are a routine function in prison and sadly, too often reveal illicit items – the most serious of which are drugs and weapons. Room searches should always be conducted in a considerate manner and with reasonable care. However, given their extremely thorough nature, there is bound to be some disturbance of personal items. Prisoners can and do use the complaints system if they are not happy with the way in which a search has been conducted.

Your suggestion that male staff continually look through ‘peepholes’ at times when the women are likely to be undressing is nothing short of disgraceful. In the 3 ½ years of my tenure here, no woman has ever complained to me either formally or informally about improper behaviour such as you describe. I am absolutely certain that if there was any suspicion whatever on the part of any of the women here (or indeed of the staff generally) that male officers were behaving improperly, then it would be complained about quickly and vociferously. You do not elucidate on what you mean by inappropriate sexual comments. Once again, no such problems have been raised by the women themselves – and nor would I tolerate such comments were they to be made. This is another matter which you ought to have raised with me immediately you became concerned.

Your report has clearly provided a different perspective on the remand experience and you have made a number of valid criticisms which I have taken on board. In other areas, however, you have based your comments only on partial information and understanding.

Overall though, I am both very surprised and very disappointed that you failed to raise any of your complaints or concerns with me at any time during your 19 weeks (in all) on remand.

Given the strength of your feelings about the perceived weaknesses and faults of some parts of the service provision in remand, I am disturbed that you did not alert me personally to your concerns – especially as you felt it to be part of your role to advocate on behalf of others less articulate than yourself. I cannot address problem areas with energy, speed and effectiveness if you wait over 6 months to tell me about them.

I do, however, appreciate your positive comments about staff and about many aspects of the regime. My commitment is to continuous improvement and to responding as positively and effectively as is practicable in a custodial setting, to the complex and chronic needs of the overwhelming majority of the women here.

Yours sincerely


c.c. 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