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26 January 2015, 11:22 | Updated: 26 January 2015, 11:26
Plans to build a new women's prison to replace Scotland's only all-female jail have been scrapped, the Justice Secretary has announced.
Michael Matheson said the Government needed to be "bolder'' and take a "more radical and ambitious approach'' to dealing with female offenders.
He has been considering proposals to establish a purpose built, female prison at Inverclyde to replace the existing Cornton Vale jail near Stirling since becoming Justice Secretary last year.
He announced the new jail would not be going ahead as he visited a specialist centre in Glasgow that aims to prevent reoffending by offering women support for problems such addiction, and mental and physical health issues.
Mr Matheson said: "When it comes to the justice system, we must be smarter with the choices we make and be more sophisticated in the way in which we deal with female offenders.''
He stated: "Whilst it is for the courts to decide who receives a custodial sentence, I believe that too many low level female offenders are sent to prison. I want to take a new approach in dealing with these types of offenders and provide them with the best possible support to help turn their lives around.''
Mr Matheson said: "Since taking up post as Justice Secretary, I have been looking closely at proposals for a new prison for female offenders at Inverclyde. I've also listened carefully to the views expressed by a number of key interest groups.
"I've decided that the current plans for a prison for women in Inverclyde should not go ahead. It does not fit with my vision of how a modern and progressive country should be addressing female offending. We need to be bolder and take a more radical and ambitious approach in Scotland.''
Earlier this month Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy had urged the Scottish Government to think again on plans for the new "super prison'', saying ministers should instead set up, smaller local centres to help female offenders
Mr Murphy said at the time: "Cornton Vale is the most violent prison in Scotland and to simply plan to build a modern version of Cornton Vale is planning for failure.''
Former Lord Advocate Dame Elish Angioni branded Cornton Vale ''a miserable place'' where some prisoners lived in ''antediluvian and appalling'' conditions.
Dame Elish, who chaired a commission set up by the Scottish Government to examine how best to deal with female offenders, recommended in 2012 that there should be a smaller, specialist prison for long-term and high-risk prisoners, as well as regional units to hold those serving shorter sentences and those on remand.
Mr Matheson said the former Lord Advocate had made "a number of important recommendations, recognising that female offenders have very different needs to their male counterparts and require very specific support''.
The Justice Secretary said: "We know that women offenders are far less likely to be a danger to the public compared with men.We also know that the families and children of female offenders are more likely to go off the rails and offend themselves if mothers are jailed miles away from home. This turns into a vicious circle, affecting future generations, and is doing nothing to address reoffending.
"I believe we should be investing in smaller regional and community-based custodial facilities across the country, rather than a large new prison for women. This approach would be more closely aligned with the vision set out by Dame Elish. It also demonstrates the Scottish Government's commitment to tackling inequalities.
"We need to ensure that links to the family and community can be maintained, whilst targeted work is undertaken to address the specific issue which is fuelling the crime such as alcohol, drugs or mental health issues.''
He said the 218 centre, which is run by Turning Point Scotland and the Glasgow Addiction Service, was an example of "exactly the type of sophisticated approach that I would like to see as part of our plans for the way in which we look after women in custody''.
Mr Matheson said: "I share the vision of Dame Elish that we need to transform services for women so that we can help them break the cycle of reoffending and they can start making a positive contribution to society.''
Martin Cawley, the chief executive of Turning Point Scotland, said: "Community-based alternatives to custody, like 218, support women to make positive changes in their lives by providing a safe, structured environment to help them improve health and wellbeing and address many of the underlying issues that contribute towards their offending, such as substance misuse issues.
"Many of the women using the service have a range of complex needs such as addiction, poor mental or physical health and trauma issues. By addressing these underlying issues, it reduces the likelihood of them reoffending in future.
He added: "Turning Point Scotland 218's approach is backed up by an independent evaluation carried out by London South Bank University and the recommendations of the Commission on Women Offenders, chaired by Dame Elish Angiolini.''