Scotland has just set
back the cause of penal
reform by 100 years
The wall at Saughton prison
Photograph by islay McLeod
All prisons are naturally oubliettes – forgotten places. We pass them in the car and on the bus and unless we are directly connected to the individual inmates, the staff or the others who are involved, it is likely that we don't give them much of a thought. At the back of our minds we might be a little guilty about our ignorance but we settle with the thought that the powers that be will know what they are doing.
This apathy I have shared. It was only when some friends became inmates at my local jail that I began to learn about the prison world. Then other friends became members of a statutory prison visiting committee, acting on behalf of the justice minister and appointed by the local authority. Their work seems to have two distinct but practically interwoven aspects. They are required to respond promptly to approaches from prisoners with problems and complaints and support them in managing these. They also have a statutory responsibility to monitor the condition of the prison and its management on a fortnightly basis, asking the important questions and feeding back to both prison management and their local visiting committee.
In undertaking this task they have the right to visit any part of the prison at any time. Though the visitor system is long established, its relevance is sharpened by the current overcrowding and the pressure this puts on staff and management. If you put mainly vulnerable and probably unhappy and difficult people into crammed lock-ups and ask an overstretched staff to deal with them, then at all times you will need an independent and vigilant eye.
Now, in a hair-brained decision that even out-trumps the Trump fiasco, the Scottish Government is set to abolish the visiting procedure and replace it with 'an independent advocacy system' and is clearly ruling out any significant monitoring role for the new organisation. All visits will be announced. The justice minister claims that the prisons are made otherwise adequately accountable. This is blatant nonsense. Visits by the HM inspector of prisons are infrequent. The Prison Complaints Commission was abolished last year. All other actors are a part of the system.
In terms of finance alone a fraction of the money that will now be spent on advocacy contracts and their associated transaction costs could transform the training opportunities for the members of prison visiting committees.
The decision has been taken in the face of the responses to the consultation and it is notable that not one woman prisoner was involved in the consultation's focus groups. The government promised to come up with a set of proposals at this time, following the consultation period, but it has instead made its decision and conveyed it in a 'Thank-You-And-Goodbye' letter to visitors, slipping the announcement into the pre-Christmas void.
It is an open secret that the performance of visiting committees varies across the land and there is in particular an unhappy and shameful tradition of local councillors taking part in order to beef-up their committee profile and then doing little or nothing. Some local authorities need to be taking their visiting responsibilities much more seriously. But we don't abolish the police service just because some officers are lazy or corrupt, or schools because some teachers are incompetent. In terms of finance alone a fraction of the money that will now be spent on advocacy contracts and their associated transaction costs could transform the training opportunities for the members of prison visiting committees.
What is leading the government down this disastrous path? The justice minister's fixation with 1980s-style streamlining is one thing. There is no indication that any inclusive cost accounting has gone into the decision. The strong lobbying position of the Scottish Prison Service is another. In the consultation their negative 1% outweighed the other 99% positive responses. Overall, the government doesn't seem to have a scoobie about what is happening on the ground. They look set to put back progress towards the humane and just treatment of prisoners by about 100 years. But, hey, there are few votes in prison reform.
David Mackenzie was a secondary school teacher, education adviser and an education officer before taking a full part in the Trident Ploughshares campaign. He is currently active in the Forth Valley area on nuclear disarmament and on extending allotment provision for local people