Cornton Vale Prison Report by Angie Zelter


Remand Prisoner No.50463
In Cornton Vale Remand Wing
From 9/6/99 to 21/10/99 (19 weeks in all)

Introduction and Aim Of Report

Being a free and independent spirit who carries out civil resistance work against inhumane acts committed by governments, corporations and others (on issues involving peace, human rights and environmental protection), I often find myself in prison, in the UK and abroad. In any democratic country, freely given feedback from the inmates of the State’s institutions, is valuable. I therefore offer this report to anyone interested and especially to the prison authorities. I hope that it will prove useful in the ongoing prison reform process. Analysis of a society’s institutions can be a good indicator of the state of health of our society and that analysis cannot be complete without the view of those for whom the institution was set up in the first place.

I am aware that as a confident, articulate and fairly well-educated middle-aged woman who is well-supported on the outside, I was able to demand my rights, or complain, or appeal to people higher up in the prison hierarchy and was thus able to mitigate some of the problems that I and other prisoners faced at Cornton Vale. This was sometimes resented by some prison officers, aware of how unfair this was. However, the rights I claimed for myself should have been freely available to all prisoners. I was careful to stress to all that I was not claiming them for myself alone. This report is part of the process to try and ensure that all prisoners get better treatment and I write it on behalf of my fellow-prisoners.

I kept a diary and record of events whilst I was in Cornton Vale and so the statistics are fairly accurate. I noted for instance on a daily basis how often I got exercise, gym, classes, visits, mail, church, or my room was turned over.

For reasons of confidentiality I have not given the names of prisoners or prison officers. This report is offered in respect and gratitude for the many on both sides of the locked doors who act with humanity and love in difficult situations.


Prison is meant to deprive you of your liberty for the term of your sentence or remand period. The prison experience is not meant to lead to a deterioration in one’s health, especially when on remand, where a prisoner is meant to be considered as innocent until proven guilty and to be able to carry on as normal a way of life as possible. I was eventually acquitted but my health was certainly affected by my time in prison. I was less fit, finding it difficult to return to my normal active life. My sleep pattern was very disturbed, I suffered from many more headaches than the one or two per year I used to experience, my skin was in a worse condition, and I was generally run down. Many of the prisoners on remand come with severe health problems and maybe for them the prison experience can actually improve their health (although this recognition is not a reason for not ensuring ‘best practice’) but for prisoners like myself, who come in healthy, prison tends to leave them less healthy.

Lack of toilet facilities – this was probably the most stressful and unhealthy aspect of prison life at Cornton Vale. It was also very frustrating because it was not officially recognised although most members of staff actually working on the unit had to accept it was a problem although excusing themselves by saying they could do nothing about it. Thankfully the renovations now taking place will be providing in-cell toilets. At present however, there are no safe facilities in the cell. When you are not allowed out of your cell, which can be for up to 16 hours at a stretch (this happened several times in my stay), you are pushed a cardboard potty in through the little hole in the door and expected to pee and shit into that. If you are well prepared you will have already stashed away such potties and also plastic bags within which to store the potty afterwards, otherwise you have to bear with the smell and the slow seepage of the urine onto the floor. If it is only a pee you want, then most people dispose of it down the sink and this is of course where another health hazard comes in.

There is a high incidence of hepatitis in prisons and the disposal of urine into sinks out of which several people wash and get their drinking water is very dangerous. It is not reasonable, to expect women in cramped cells to keep urine in cardboard potties until they are let out, or to assume that if they have to pee in the middle of the night, which older women often have to do, that they should stay awake continually ringing their bell until eventually some night staff let them out. It is degrading to have to continually ask to be let out to the toilet. It is also open to much power abuse for staff to be able to with-hold such a basic human right. Regardless of what the senior staff at Cornton Vale may say, if you wish to go to the toilet between the time you are locked away for the night (which can be from anytime between 5 p.m. and 9 p.m.) and the time the night patrol comes on which seems to be around 12 midnight, then you are told they cannot let you out. Then when the night patrol are out and about you still have to wait until they come round. If you want to go at 3 a.m. in the morning you have to ring, maybe wait an hour and then 4 staff members are waiting and watching and listening in the corridor while you perform in a toilet that has the top half of the door removed and a large space under the door. When I made a written complaint I was assured that I would never have to wait more than 20 minutes at the most to go to the toilet. In fact I frequently had to wait 4 hours or more.

Prisoners are always locked up for one hour immediately after rushing their food down and unfortunately my body needs to evacuate its wastes immediately after eating. This meant that after most meals I had to walk the cell trying to hold back until finally released to go to a proper toilet an hour later. Quite often I had to shit in the cardboard potty and empty it later. There was no safe and clean place to dispose of the shitty cardboard potties either. Usually I had to put them in a black plastic bag in the kitchen area where the unit has its rubbish disposal bin.

Access to a doctor or dentist – I did not need access to a doctor or a dentist whilst at Cornton Vale. However, I witnessed one very seriously ill woman who was denied access to a doctor even though we were all concerned about her and she was obviously sick. It was not until she actually fainted in the corridor that a doctor was immediately summonsed. I heard from several women that they had asked the nurse to see a doctor but were denied. If the same standards of care are to be made available as in the NHS outside then the right to see the doctor should not be thwarted by a nurse or prison officer although they may still advise that in their opinion it is not necessary. Several women I spoke to were experiencing dental pain and took weeks to be given access to a dentist and so had to survive with large doses of pain killers. The nurses seemed much happier giving out pain-killers and sleeping pills than in actually dealing with the causes of these problems. In contrast, the needs of those addicted to drugs over-rode all else. If nothing else the women got their drugs three times a day without fail. Whilst in my last few weeks, I had become very run down and was sharing a cell with a prisoner who had had a very bad cold – which had gone the rounds of the unit. I rarely get colds or flu because, when I am independent (out of prison) I treat myself with high doses of vitamin C for a few days when the need arises and this acts as a preventative. When I asked for vitamin C, it was denied, even though I asked to be able to buy it for myself or to have it handed in at a visit or any other way the prison could organise. I was not allowed to have it bought for me or sent in. I was eventually driven to smuggling it in and managed to ward off the cold. As I was in the middle of a complex trial where I was defending myself, it was of great importance to me to be able to prevent such a cold from taking effect. I also saw at first hand the failure of adequate communication between prison and police/courts medical assistance. Both of my co-defendants, one of whom was suffering from severe sinus problems and the other who was suffering from a bad cold, had tremendous hassle in being allowed to take their anti-biotic treatment that had been prescribed by the doctor provided by the police at the court. To be treated and prescribed anti-biotics and then be denied their use by prison staff is not only frustrating and stressful but also dangerous.

On the positive side though. I thought the pre-natal care of the pregnant women on remand was excellent with frequent visits by a mid-wife, access to the hospital for scans and with good educational materials including videos being accessible to them.

General Cleanliness – Our wing was kept quite clean with a minimum of fuss and with tasks being divided amongst the prisoners on a rota system. The rubbish thrown from the windows was not cleared up on a daily basis however and it was rather depressing to watch it accumulate. The laundry was collected and washed four times a week which was adequate for normal clothing but not for clothes worn at the gym. It is also worth mentioning that the scissors and nail clippers I had to ask to borrow every time I needed to cut my nails were ineffective – they could hardly cut anything. These may seem like trivial matters but when you have to ask for permission and arrange for such basic needs to be met it is really frustrating to find you cannot do the job properly because of the state of the tools.

Smoking – I appreciated the no-smoking policy at Cornton Vale. I was able to ask and receive permission to only share with non-smokers. This made a huge difference to my health and happiness whilst there. It was clear and very welcome that the prison endorsed the no smoking policy in cells for those who wished it. However, although my cell was smoke-free the corridors, sitting room, gym and transport to and from the prison were not. In these areas, the no-smoking policy was hardly enforced at all which made a mockery of all the signs up everywhere. I appreciate that non-smokers are a tiny minority in prison and that smokers have a right to smoke in their individual cells. Smokers should also be allowed time to smoke on long journeys especially when they are nervous before and after a court hearing, but there should be better facilities for non-smokers – perhaps a non-smoking unit if separate sitting rooms can not be provided.

Exercise – an hour of daily exercise in the fresh air is commonly considered a minimum for healthy living. Cornton Vale does not always provide the daily minimum to all prisoners and I often had to ask the staff to arrange the exercise. It is not pleasant to always have to be asking for something or other and yet the whole prison system is set up to make one as dependent as possible. If several days had gone by with no exercise I usually made a verbal complaint and exercise was then forthcoming. My records show that I received exercise roughly 75% of my pre-trial time of 110 days.

It was appreciated that during some of the hottest days of the summer, exercise time was often longer than an hour. As the rooms on one side of the unit were overpoweringly hot with the sun coming in full blast and the windows opening only a few inches, this was actually a necessity. It was also appreciated that most of the staff allowed me to exercise in the rain too. Although most women would not like this I like to have fresh air whatever the weather and appreciate the chance to experience the extremes of temperature outside.

For most of my stay at the prison the remand unit was allowed to exercise in the area in front of the unit that has some benches, grass and flower beds in it. This was much more pleasant than the little paved yard we were taken to for about a month, where there was hardly any room for any exercise. As I like to really take proper exercise and to be able to have room to do yoga exercises, the open area was much better. I was allowed to run around the exercise area which was appreciated which was impossible in the little paved yard when there were other prisoners present.

Many of the other prisoners needed quite a bit of encouragement to take exercise unless it was very hot. But on a few occasions there were skipping ropes and balls present which helped. It would not take much imagination to help the young women especially, to get out of their cells and get some fresh air. From time to time they would join in the yoga exercises and some games with us.

Food – Generally this was not too bad and care was taken to provide an adequate (in the short-term) vegan diet. However, if I had been in the prison for many more months there would have been serious vitamin, mineral and protein deficiencies. Other prisons provide a weekly vegan pack which includes soya milk with added calcium, dried fruit and nuts as well as oats, marmite, peanut butter and brown wholemeal bread.

The availability of fruit instead of the deserts meant that the fruit intake was adequate for me though sorely lacking for the non-vegan prisoners. There was a lack of fresh raw vegetables and salads though I was often given more than the other prisoners because of being on a vegan diet. This was appreciated but should have been available for all. There is no reason why the prison could not grow fresh organic fruit and vegetables, especially in the summer. There is plenty of land and not only could it save the prison money but also would give the prisoners something to do with their time as well as teaching them new skills to take away with them. Tree fruit and nuts, especially, require very little maintenance once planted.

Breakfasts were rather random, as one had to keep going to the unit downstairs to check when the cereals were being handed out and often there was no toast left. In fact the cereals, toast and margarine were quite often unavailable, on average at least once a week.

There was also a chronic shortage of bowls and mugs. The hygiene of food distribution was poor at week-ends when cake was handed in by hand and placed on the dirty peep-hole which was flapped open for the purpose. Either tongs or gloves should have been used and a plate provided.

Shopping and Sundry Purchases

The shop was very poorly stocked mainly with junk foods and drinks available. Unlike other prison shops where one can buy pure fruit juices, dried fruit, nuts, marmalade, jam, vitamins etc, this shop only had the most common fizzy drinks and coloured fruit drinks, pot noodles, crisps, sugar, coffee and chocolates. There was a range of cigarettes/tobacco and some cosmetics. There were also 1st and 2nd class stamps but no European stamps or air-mail letter cards or decent stationery. For vegans or anyone wanting whole foods, organic or gm-free foods there was no choice whatsoever. I mostly used the shop to buy stamps and phone cards.

We were told that we could put in for sundry purchases. But this was a palaver that took sometimes 5 weeks to sort out. However, whilst there I did manage to get several lots of sundry purchases and was therefore able to get pure fruit juices and some dried fruit and nuts, which helped to supplement my diet. This was appreciated. Whilst the shop is so poorly stocked this is a very useful service and I hope that the rumours that food stuffs could not be purchased in this way will prove untrue.

Daily Letter and Other Privileges

The daily letter was a useful and necessary means for keeping in touch with family and friends and is especially necessary in a prison service that does not provide pocket money. It was frustrating that we were not allowed to receive the stamps and letter writing materials that kind, but badly informed friends kept sending in for us, especially considering the paucity of choice in the shop. The complicated and bureaucratic process of asking permission, then having to find a visitor willing to bring the goods in, asking for a pro-forma, then receiving the pro-forma and sending it out – could be short-circuited, by allowing goods to be sent in. I needed special stationery (plastic files, large envelopes, A4 paper for printouts etc) and also books for my defence preparation and the process for arranging this was archaic. Luckily, several members of staff used their discretion and let through airmail letter cards and books from time to time. But again, why should this be a discretion or even rule-breaking? Whilst on bail and technically innocent one should be able to carry on as normal a way of life as possible and for me this means being able to carry on a wide correspondence.

When money arrives in the post we all had to sign for it. This was a good safety check and enabled us, prisoners, to feel confident that our money was being put on our account for us. However, when stamps and other goods arrived in the post for us there was no similar system. This meant there were possibilities for abuses to take place that were out of the prisoners control. A method for recording items of monetary value that arrive in the post should be instituted. Also, there should be a monthly (at least) written account given to each prisoner of all the monetary transactions in and out of their account, so the prisoner who wants to check on their financial records is not put in the invidious position of having to beg for this too.

The availability of the use of a telephone at any time one is out of one’s cells is excellent and makes a big difference to the ability to be able to keep up family contacts and to lessening social isolation. However, the cost of the calls through the use of phone cards is too high. The Prison Service should negotiate a contract with the telephone companies for a reduced rate for the special prison telephone cards so that the charge rate is at least reduced down to the average household phone charge rather than being equal to phone cards on the outside.

On leaving Cornton Vale I was assured that all mail that arrived for me would be forwarded. I had to ring up a month later and ask why no mail had been forwarded. I was then forwarded a couple of cards. However, I know of at least three letters that were sent to me in prison after my release and none of these have been forwarded. There is obviously a problem here.

Classes / Use of Time

If one word could sum up the prison experience for those on remand it would be boredom. There is very little constructive use made of the time remand prisoners spend in prison. TV provides some relief from boredom but leads to passivity when not mixed with more participative activities. Work on problem-solving and the building of self-respect was minimal. Maybe there should be a voluntary, but formal, process where each individual prisoner’s problems/life skills are looked at, through one-to-one and group work, so that both prisoner and ‘helpers/facilitators’ could work out practical strategies for a positive future that would also be crime-free. Maybe incentives, like wages could be offered to the women to encourage their participation.

There were not enough places in most of the classes offered, for the women who wanted to take part. Inevitably this led to the better behaved women being allowed to go which left the most needy, or those with a ‘bolshier’ character, without a chance to get out of their cells and become constructively engaged. This led to ‘subservience’ being encouraged. There should be the chance of some kind of activity for every remand prisoner, every morning and evening. Thursdays, which is staff training day, and the weekends, were the days that dragged endlessly and when boredom and depression set in most. Some classes were not properly advertised, so many women did not know they could go to them – yoga being a case in point. There were some very poor teachers as well as some excellent ones. One of the art teachers was really excellent and the gym staff were good too, as was the yoga teacher. To improve the standard of teaching maybe inspections to judge quality should take place and extra training and advice given to upgrade skills.

Gym – the equipment in the gym was good, although it did tend to mean there was much less of the aerobics, floor exercises and sport training, which meant the women were more isolated and less engaged than they could have been. All the gym staff were good with the prisoners and provided a welcome relief from being locked in cells. More encouragement could have been given to prisoners to attend. The early morning starts at the week-end, when we are often let out of our cells much later than usual, meant that attendance on these two days was much smaller than need be. The time often conflicted with medication time for instance. The major problem in the gym was the lack of gym shoes and clothes. I had to be bare foot – which I like to be – but this was not appropriate for everyone. I also found the lack of dedicated gym clothes a problem as I had to use unsuitable normal clothing some of the time and had a problem with washing them frequently enough. Being a regular in the gym I was often given one of the few t-shirts and trousers but often had to use them several days running, with dried sweat on them. Most of the women had to use their own clothes.

Access to TV – in the cells is certainly a life saver and I found it certainly lessened my sense of sensory deprivation even though I watched it rarely. Luckily I was not sharing with anyone during the time I was writing the first draft of my defence otherwise it may have caused a major concentration problem as most women have it on continuously.

Library – there is one apparently though I never got to borrow any books from it, although I asked frequently. It was finally admitted that remand prisoners are not allowed to use the library – it is only for convicted prisoners. It was explained that too many books were lost! This is a great pity because many women would have benefited from a greater range of books than the few tattered ones found in the corner of the sitting room. I would have found it extremely upsetting not to have access to books but luckily I had brought quite a few in with me and was able to get new ones handed in and out as I had a good prison visitor rota set up for me by my outside supporters. However, most prisoners do not have this kind of support.


Compared to say the prison visiting area at Greenock Prison, the visiting area at Cornton Vale is very off-putting. You have to stay in your chair and cannot converse freely with other prisoners and visitors. You are not allowed to hug and greet other visitors even if you know them and the atmosphere is uncongenial. Many of my visitors were shocked by the entry procedure and the sudden pounces on people suspected of passing on drugs. The drinks vending machine for hot drinks was rarely working . However, on the positive side the visits were usually around 45 minutes in length and sometimes an hour.

The prisoner visiting list is a continual source of frustration. One is only allowed to have ten names on it and there is an unnecessary hassle to change them. I was told I would not be allowed to make changes to the list but when I complained about this, I was allowed to. It is unreasonable to expect all prisoners to be able to foresee all the possible visitors they might have. There seems to be no good reason and it would certainly save a great deal of staff time, if one could just add the names as and when they became known, a few days before the visit, instead of having to chose a name to take off and then add a new name and to continually juggle the process. It is not surprising that the reception staff were sometimes unsure who was on the list and that there was frustration and upset when some visitors, who had travelled from afar were not given permission to visit because they were, supposedly, not on the list.

Legal Visits / Trial Preparation

Although it took a little time to set up we were allowed productive joint legal visits. As co-defendants, two of whom had legal representation and myself who did not and due to the necessity to co-operate in the calling of joint witnesses, this was a very necessary need and one which the prison dealt with well.

I was allowed the use of a prison lap-top computer which was very necessary in the preparation of my defence papers. I had some difficulties in getting printing done, especially during the trial, which I overcame by using support from the outside. I was made very conscious of the time this took prison staff and made to feel guilty about it. I pointed out that this problem could have been solved by allowing me a printer in my cell. I was willing to provide my own equipment to the prison. However, I was told that all printing had to be read word for word by the security and that this is what took the time. I am not sure about the legality of security staff reading defence papers word for word but had to let this pass at the time because of my prime need to get my defence printed out and ready to use in court. Considering the rarity of prisoners doing their own defences like this, the prison coped well. However, if the staff on my unit had not been so accommodating and helpful it could have been a very serious problem. It would have been much easier for the prison staff, and for me, if I had been allowed access to a printer in my room and just had my mail and documents more thoroughly checked than usual. This is common practice in Scandinavian prisons where prisons are much better run.

There is a complete lack of adequate law reference books in the library, I have been told by prisoners in the convicted wing, but in any case I was not allowed to use the library. All prison libraries should have an adequate law section. There are many firms of lawyers who would donate such books if asked.

Trial Time

This is a period of immense strain and anxiety for all prisoners and the longer the trial the harder it gets.

Travel to and from court – provided several health and safety problems. Smoking was permitted in the vehicles going to and from court – which was a health hazard in such a closed environment. Smoking stops, away from non-smokers, should be arranged for the smokers who should not be expected to endure long journeys at such a trying time without being able to smoke. Many of the vehicles did not have safety-belts and the radio was turned up so high it hurt my ears. Luckily I was able to have ear-plugs sent in and used them throughout the journeys. There were also some drivers who routinely drove dangerously fast, breaking the speed regulations as a matter of course. Travel to and from Greenock for trial over almost four weeks was very stressful because of the length of the journeys. It was especially difficult for me because as I was defending myself I needed time to work on my defence. We were often either waiting in strip cells, police cells or travelling, for 6 hours every day and several times we arrived at court late. Quite often special arrangements were made to take or bring us back directly from Greenock rather than going by Glasgow police station. This helped cut down journey time and was appreciated but again it was only because we made such a fuss about it.

The food arrangements for those going to court – were completely inadequate and it was only because of personal appeals to the kitchen staff and their kind agreement that we were provided with sandwiches that we could get on return to the wing at night. The usual pattern is for tea and toast and margarine in the reception wing in the morning, whatever was given you for lunch in the police/court cells which was usually a salad roll or police breakfast, and then toast and tea on arrival back at the wing. We were not meant to have any milk or other daily rations because ‘You are not entitled to anything when you are at court’ and ‘You are not in the prison properly when you are on trial – you don’t exist here’. I was able to persuade the kindlier staff to give me my soya milk daily and to get breakfast cereal the night before but these were all begged for and an ‘exception to the rules’. Prisoners on trial, and especially those with long trials, should not have to beg for routine food.

Lack of exercise – during the almost 4 weeks of the trial I only received exercise and fresh air at the week-ends.

The washing arrangements for prisoners on trial – was also not catered for. I had to break the rules once again in order to get clothes washed whilst on trial otherwise I would have run out of clean clothes.

Treatment Of Cultural, Religious and Ethnic Minorities

Language – the arrangements for interpretation and translation are inadequate. People who do not speak English are at a profound disadvantage and whilst this is recognised and there is sympathy for the victim it does not help them very much! If the British authorities are going to imprison people who do not speak English in English-speaking prisons, then they have to deal with the problem humanely. There should be pre-prepared written materials in the most common languages needed – I presume these would be French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Hindi and Cantonese. These written information packs should outline the basic prison services, rules and procedures and should be in a bi-lingual form so that the prisoner can point to a paragraph or sentence and the English equivalent is alongside for easy communication. Perhaps a simple glossary of stock questions and answers could be included. This is a project that could be undertaken by the education department at the prison, perhaps with help from outside agencies and of course with the help of both remand and convicted prisoners. From time to time there will be prisoners who speak none of these languages but such a ready prepared document could easily then be sent to their embassy or consul with a request for immediate translation. In the same way as a court must provide adequate translation so should a prison have to do the same or else they should provide the prisoner with English language training. Foreign prisoners should also have access to the library where books in their own language should be found through the inter-library loan system.

Airmail – I myself needed to be able to send letters to other countries and could not get the correct stamps efficiently or air-mail letter cards officially. I was reduced to sending some of these letters to outside friends to forward for me. For prisoners who are not of British nationality and/or have family and friends abroad the lack of air-mail letter cards was very serious as delivery times were very much lengthened. This is a problem that the prison is said to be sorting out but by the time I left it was still not sorted.

Telephones/Communications – the use of telephone cards when phoning friends and family abroad does not work – they are finished before you even start. Other prisons recognise that foreign prisoners are not able to receive many visits, if any, and are more socially disadvantaged than native prisoners and therefore allow family/friends to phone in to the prison at a set time every week or month and the prisoner is enabled to be at the phone to receive that half-hour or so call.

Prejudice – there is sometimes severe racial prejudice that is not only confined to black prisoners but also to English and Irish prisoners. It generally takes the form of verbal abuse but also extends to isolating the victim by cold-shouldering and also having less access to the privileges of class attendance etc. Cultural differences are also picked upon. It would be useful if there were a short course for all new remand prisoners on racial, cultural and religious awareness and tolerance. There could be a deeper and lengthier version of this offered to all convicted prisoners and to all staff. It was notable that whilst in Cornton Vale I did not see anyone, other than prisoners, from an ethnic minority background. It would be a useful exercise to check and see if any prison staff, outside teachers and visitors or any of the prison visiting board are from minority ethnic or religious backgrounds and if lacking to recruit some.

Special needs – there are obvious special dietary, clothing and medical needs for people from other countries. Some of these were not being met.

Religious – only Catholic and Protestant Christian faiths seemed to be catered for in the prisons. Our group of three peace protesters asked for and kindly received a weekly visit from a Quaker who helped facilitate a Quaker Meeting for Worship. We were also able to attend chapel if we wished. Many of the prisoners were not officially religious and therefore were not helped to develop their spiritual aspects. They may well have responded to some less formal spiritual experience if offered. Also, maybe occasional multi-faith services could have been arranged.

Club – a very good multi-cultural group was set up in the prison whilst I was there and I was able to attend 6 sessions. It consisted of remand and convicted prisoners, staff, social workers and the chaplains. It was the only experience in the prison where I felt that everyone was properly respected and a constructive and free debate was encouraged within an atmosphere of equality. Consequently I was not surprised that it was doing good work. All the points above and many others were debated and I hope that any report coming from out of this process will be taken seriously.


Although, on the one hand, it is good that the complaint system is written down because this means that the system as a whole has a written record of the kinds of complaints coming in and there is a set-down procedure for the complaints to be dealt with, there is a problem with non-literate prisoners who just cannot deal with them. It also seems as if there is no mechanism for the numbers and kinds of complaints that emerge to be recorded. For instance, some of my complaints were dealt with before they reached the last stage – I was then handed back the written complaint. This means then that there is no record of these complaints and so it will not be possible to do any analysis over time. Also, considering that many remand prisoners will be out of the system before their complaint is dealt with, these complaints may also not be recorded. If complaints are made time and again it is a good indication that something is wrong and thus a necessary feed-back check to the system.

Room Searches

Whilst there, I experienced three room ‘turn-overs’ as they are graphically known as. This is literally what they are. Everything is stripped off and turned over. One of these room searches, I found more upsetting than the others, partly because of the way in which my collage (on the pin-board provided for such purposes) was ripped down and the post-cards damaged, carefully ironed clothes were dumped under heavy books and because of the invasion and desecration of what I had made my home, but also because of the way a neighbouring prisoner was treated. She was dragged off in a way reminiscent of my assault by staff the previous September and I found it quite traumatic. There is no need for such heavy handed techniques.

Room searches are always stressful and it was appreciated when some of the staff took the time and care to be considerate with the prisoners property. It would lead to much more respect and less abuse of the trust that is so carefully built up, if staff put everything back after the search, in the same state in which they found it. It would take longer but pay dividends. If the staff wish to get respect then they must also show respect to the prisoners.


It was quite noticeable that some staff were much better than others. Changes in the policy for the deployment of staff could do a great deal to improve the working atmosphere. There are certain staff that should never be put on together and other staff that it would always be a good idea to have some of at any one time. As a matter of policy there should always be a mix of men and women staff at all times. It is not appropriate in a women’s prison to have all male staff on at any time. I witnessed some offensive and inappropriate sexual comments made by male staff to the prisoners, although none so serious that I reported them. However, I did see some of the male staff continually looking through the peep holes at times when the women were likely to be undressing. This kind of behaviour was only seen to occur when male staff were on together.


Although there are a large number of kind and caring people within the system, the prison experience for most remand prisoners is still stressful, frustrating, unhealthy, petty and unproductive. The high turn-over of mostly very young, drug-addicted women with multiple problems, many of whom have the continual worry and pain of separation from their young children, leads to low-level depression, anxiety, self-abuse and lack of incentives to constructively rebuild their lives. The contrast between remand and convicted wings seems to be overly great.

The worst problem is access to decent toilet facilities. The current system of night sanitation is not only degrading, but also unhealthy and very stressful. Continual denial that the problem even exists exacerbates the situation. The other major problem is the sheer waste of opportunity and the horrendous boredom and lack of purpose for the women on remand. There is little constructive use of time by the women and little encouragement to make use of the facilities that are available. Society spends a great deal of money to imprison these women and the fact that so many return time and time again shows that something is missing. I saw little evidence of long-term problem solving or work on building self-respect. The few social work visits or suicide risk assessments are inadequate in my opinion. Most prisoners spend the vast majority of their time in their cells looking at TV – which is a life-saver but does not give them the guidance and support to tackle their problems.

I was impressed by a very high percentage of good staff who tried to build trusting relationships with the women but was distressed to see these undermined by the way in which complaints were dealt with and the heavy-handed way in which the room searches were conducted.

Once again I was disturbed at the number of women in prison who had absolutely no need to be incarcerated. Society could much better deal with the problems these women have by providing resources direct to the communities in most need.

I would stress that this report is offered in respect and gratitude for the many on both sides of the locked doors who act with humanity and love in difficult situations. It is an open report and can be quoted from freely (with acknowledgements). It has been sent to all of the following: the Governor of Cornton Vale Prison, 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.

Angie Zelter, October 1999.