OTHER countries should ­“absolutely” be following Scotland’s lead in looking to evolve beyond the “bankrupt” idea of traditional ­prisons, a leading expert in the US has said.

Amy Fettig, the executive director of the Washington DC-based The ­Sentencing Project, told the ­Sunday National that the newly opened ­women’s custodial units in Dundee and Glasgow – which do not have bars or cells and aim to reintegrate female offenders back into the ­community – were a “step in the right direction” for prison reform.

“It’s great to see other countries ­really starting to implement new ideas because that is filtering into the US in a way that it never used to,” she went on.

The National: Amy FettigAmy Fettig

“Even though we know that ­community ties are one of the most important things for people to ­reintegrate into society ­successfully after being incarcerated, what we’ve done in practice is exactly the ­opposite of that, isolate people from their communities.

“In the US that’s had a ­negative ­impact on the incarcerated ­population and clearly a negative impact on ­recidivism rates, our recidivism rates are extremely high.”

Justice Secretary Keith Brown claimed that recidivism rates – which measure whether a convicted person reoffends – would be driven down by the two new “community custodial units” in Scotland.

Asked if this claim held up, ­Fettig said it did. “There is research that demonstrates that closer ties to ­community and family reduce recidivism, that’s absolutely true,” she said.

Fettig said that because there are fewer women in prison, female ­offenders are often moved “far away from their communities” into a large, centralised unit that means they ­“never see their family or their ­children”.

Nicola Harding, a criminology ­lecturer at Lancaster University’s Law School, told the Sunday National that small, geographically dispersed, custodial units replacing women’s prisons was a key recommendation of a landmark 2007 report by Baroness Jean Corston.

Corston’s recommendation was rejected by the UK Government as “neither feasible nor desirable”, but the Scottish Government has taken a different approach.

Harding said: “What I’ve found with the Scottish system is that they have been much more rehabilitation-focused and a lot more experimental in their approach.

“Scotland has a tradition of ­trying to push innovation in criminal ­justice and get to the root cause to stop ­reoffending,” the criminology lecturer said, adding that she would “absolutely” support the idea of community custodial units being adopted elsewhere in the UK.

Asked if the US should take the step Scotland has taken, as ­recommended in the Corston report, Fettig said: “Absolutely, absolutely. We know from experience that smaller units are better for people. If a person is ­incarcerated then they’ve been in a crisis, and incarceration should be seen as an intervention in that crisis.”

She further said that the closer community links offered by the new units would also act as “a form of ­accountability”.

She explained: “The UK actually has pretty robust prison monitoring compared to the United States, and Scotland in particular is actually ­better than the English version.

“As someone who has acted as a watchdog, I’m certain that being close to the community – and your family members so they have greater access to you – is a form of accountability for the institution itself “If you’re isolated away where your family can’t have much contact with you it’s much easier to hide what’s happening in these institutions.”

Fettig said that traditional prisons often had a “toxic” atmosphere for both the people who are held there and the people who staff it. She said that guards in the US see “higher rates of suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, and domestic violence”.

“I walked into my first prison and I thought ‘my god, I can’t believe that we do this’,” she added.

Both experts told the Sunday ­National that while the Scottish women’s custodial units were a good first step, there was a longer journey ahead to reform what Fettig called the “bankrupt idea” of traditional prisons.

Harding said: “What we need to think about is not these custodial units in isolation, but how the whole system fits together. I’m certain this new system will reduce reoffending for women in custody who get to use these units, but we also need support once they’re back in the community, and support for women who are in the community and experiencing the trauma, abuse, or poverty which may lead to future offending.”

Fettig agreed, saying: “I do think community-based, smaller institutions are a step in the right direction. The next step is, well, can we just keep somebody at home and provide the services they need in the community.”

She added: “Prisons were the ­progressive movement of the 18th century. In the 300 intervening years we’ve learned a few other things and hopefully there has been some ­measure of human progress. ­Unfortunately we haven’t seen that in our criminal legal system.”

The Sentencing Project which Fettig leads works with 68 national American campaign groups, and more than 150 at state level, to ­advocate for “effective and humane responses to crime”.

A Scottish Prison Service ­spokesperson said: “The Bella ­Centre in Dundee and Lilias Centre in ­Glasgow are the first facilities of their kind in the UK, and mark a step change in the way we support women in custody in Scotland.

“We have redesigned the custodial environment with the aim of creating gender-specific and trauma-informed settings, with facilities designed to help better prepare women for ­release, and to reduce reoffending.”