Scotland is moving
away from humane
Although the justice minister is still clinging to his decision to abolish prison visiting committees, he does appear to have accepted that his original plan, as conveyed in December last year to visiting committee members, had no valid replacement of that central and vital function of the committees – the job of keeping a sharp eye on prison conditions as experienced by prisoners.
He has now told committee members that the monitoring function will be carried out by three individuals who will report directly to Her Majesty’s chief inspector. This is progress. A certain dim and wobbly light has dawned.
I like ministers changing their minds for the better. There is, as they say, joy in heaven. But the worries persist. The letter carries no detail or any reference to a background paper with a fully developed proposal. After seeing the letter I was able to get from the department the information that such a paper will be issued at the end of June with a consultation period extending to December. Behind this uncertain squeak of communication there may or may not be a plan.
From the letter itself we learn that the three monitors will have prison service experience. In other words, they will be insiders. One of the beauties of the visiting committee concept is that the watchful eyes are those of outsiders who can be free of that tendency to close ranks and share the institutional perspective. Another sign, perhaps, that the Scottish Prison Service has exclusive Wormtongue-like access to both the minister's ears.
It would be a mistake to wait for the end of June paper before asking sharp questions, especially since it is likely that the dots are still being filled in. Will the monitors have the right of unannounced 24/7 access? Will their reports be in the public domain? What proportion of their limited time will be spent listening to prisoners as against hob-knobbing with prison management, writing their reports or driving on the A9?
Since fag-packet design is such a feature of the minister's new enterprise, let me try a bit of my own. Each monitor will need to visit at least five prisons – on average giving 40 days per annum to each prison. After a conservative deduction for administration, travel and training, you might be left with 25 days. Lay these 25 days alongside the time spent, for example, by members of the Cornton Vale committee in responding to prisoner issues (226 separate visits in 2011) and it becomes obvious that the minister intends to streamline the system with a bulldozer. What will the monitors be paid and how will the sum of their costs compare to what is needed to run the present structure? Here, I suspect, streamlining will not apply.
Whatever detail is still to blink its way into the light, the indications so far are that the minister's substitution of the visiting committees will mean a drastically weakened process of monitoring. In the developing world, country after country is in the process of setting up or developing prison visiting systems. Meanwhile Scotland is going in the other, inhumane, direction. If we make a big enough stushie right now we might just provoke another fruitful swerve.
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