31 January 2013
Prison a home from
home? Let's see
how she likes it
Drawing by Bob Smith
An unusual thing happened in Edinburgh this week. A senior civil servant made himself vulnerable by speaking openly. He was rewarded by vilification all round, making it less likely to happen again. For anyone interested in serious discussion about the state of Scotland – we must therefore exclude any discussion about the current pamphlets extolling the virtues of independence – this is a pity.
His name is Colin McConnell and he is chief executive of the Scottish Prison Service. I hadn't heard of Mr McConnell before his appearance at the justice committee, but I like the sound of him. He has been mad enough to lay himself open to the punishment freaks of the tabloid press, those wild-eyed suburban creatures who fill the spaces between the ads. He therefore deserves our gratitude and support.
Mr McConnell's crime was to talk with refreshing candour about what we are to do with the men – they are usually men – who are sent to prison. He thought there might be a case for dealing with them as human beings. Could they – sorry, this is getting seriously subversive – could they even have access to the telephone? Woah. The telephone? A method of contact with the outside world? Stop you there, Colin McConnell. You have gone too far. Telephonic communication, indeed. Whatever next?
It is all too much for 'the opposition parties'. I'm never sure what 'the opposition parties' amount to in our essentially one-party state. Possibly they are a construction of the media. But, whoever they are, they don't like the idea of telephones in the cells. Ruth Davidson, who claims to be leader of the Scottish Conservatives, says – I can scarcely believe it, but here goes – that they will make prisons 'more home from home than they are already'.
Only 'the opposition parties', and the sad people who read the tabloid press, believe that prison is a home from home. When I was young and idealistic, I went to Saughton Prison in Edinburgh and gave a series of talks to a group of long-sentence men. The most intelligent of our little band of brothers was a serial rapist. It didn't feel like a home from home. It felt alien, bleak and scary. I could see how the serial rapist might easily have earned a living as a right-wing journalist.
Many years later, I took a party of young people into Barlinnie Prison and we were given access not only to the halls but to the house reserved for sex offenders. We spoke to these pariahs of the system and learned from the prison officers that it was at least 18 months before the typical sex offender could face up to the enormity of what he had done. This was an inescapable argument for long sentences, but it was also a case for the creation of therapeutic communities for such prisoners. The house for sex offenders wasn't a home from home either. It was a living hell.
For the other guys, the majority in the halls, conditions were immeasurably worse. If, like Ruth Davidson, you believe that prison is a home from home, you really should step into the utterly oppressive environment of a cell at Barlinnie, built for one man but usually these days housing two or three. When we were there, men urinated and defecated in buckets in front of each other and, first thing every morning, slopped out. This barbaric practice has ceased. The end of slopping out is probably the single most enlightened measure introduced in this country in the last 25 years. I have to put this crudely for the education of silly people like Ruth Davidson. Human beings were not born to smell each other's waste in prison cells.
The young people (the ones in my charge that day) left ashen-faced. I do not exaggerate. They were traumatised by what they had experienced. One said publicly that the indignity inflicted on these men must be deliberate; that there was an element of official sadism involved. He was on to something there. The Daily Telegraph, in its press release on behalf of Ruth Davidson, described prison as 'a form of punishment'. It isn't. The punishment lies in the deprivation of liberty. But we shouldn't expect 'the opposition parties' or their lackeys in the mainstream press to recognise this important distinction.
Unlike Colin McConnell, I am not convinced that television in cells is desirable. Not long ago I asked a prison governor – a civilised person; they usually are – how this worked. Was there a curfew? Apparently not. The drivel spewed out into the cell 24 hours a day and in this multi-channel world the inmates of each cell decided what to watch; by fighting it out if necessary. God knows who votes for the STV weekend news.
I once asked Ludovic Kennedy, one of the great crusaders for prison reform, why he had devoted so much of his wonderful life to this lost cause. I suggested off the top of my head that perhaps it stemmed from a deep-rooted fear of being imprisoned himself. He seemed surprised by the idea, though he did not disagree with it. But Kennedy did not live to see a world in which television programmes could – and must – be watched in prison cells round the clock. I suspect that it would have been for him the ultimate punishment, as it would certainly be for me.
When Jimmy Boyle was spreading his own shit around a prison cell, he was given one book a week to read. It came off the trolley unasked. One week he got lucky. The book was 'Crime and Punishment'. It had the considerable virtue of being on the long side. Only Proust would have suited him better. I think we should be encouraging prisoners to read and think. Or maybe even to write and think. The Scottish Review should be publishing the work of Scottish prisoners. What say you, Colin McConnell?
Meanwhile I have a suggestion to make about politicians who believe that prison is a home from home. The next time one of them articulates this gross stupidity he or she should be sent down for three months as a deterrent to others of their class. We could start with a short, sharp shock for Ruth Davidson.
Kenneth Roy is editor of the Scottish Review
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