Prisoner 65595 writes eloquently, strongly and accurately (SR, 24 February). She makes the crucial point that everyone is unique, people in prison are not 'they’ but us. Her courage and her sensitivity call for thought. If we think, truly think, we are bound to act. There is, once we have thought well, no other to attribute failures to than ourselves. Nearly 20 years ago (1998) I argued with Clive Fairweather, co-author of our report on women offenders. He thought fewer than 10 women in Scotland needed to be locked up. I took a more realistic line and we finally agreed on 100, both hoping that would in time reduce. Dear Clive I think was closer to the mark.

Why have I changed my view? The fact is that in 1998 I trusted that the many agencies involved were deeply committed to improvement, to improving the lives from birth to death of the people they were paid to serve. In part that was well founded. There was however a profound difficulty. Most of the services and organisations were erected on a poor law concept of class, deserving and undeserving, difference. This played a part in the settlement after the second world war as it had after the first. Social work services, including criminal justice, were seen as for others.

In Pilton during the 1970s and 1980s the social work team had strong engagement with the community, all credit to the staff and indeed my predecessor there, Gus Campbell, and to John Stevenson of Unison. It was not easy. Together in shifting from control to care we had a falling out over a strike about cuts (1982). A young man (19, I think) was in Edinburgh prison awaiting a social work report to advise on his release. The NALGO rules would not permit that report to be prepared. I broke those rules. Much difficulty ensued.

I feared for the young man’s life. No-one could guess his intentions, fears, thoughts, opportunities. He was, all agreed, very distressed. I visited him and made the report to the court. He was released. I was expelled from NALGO.

It seems to me that being locked up is roughly the equivalent to having a heart attack. The damage is acute, and long-lasting. Why do we do this? To women, to young men, to so many young people? Clive, who led the logistics of the Iran hostage event, was right: fewer than 10.

Which creates great challenges. But aren't they great? Are not the opportunities of venturing into the future so much better than being stuck with simply edging forward? Surely in this enlightened country we can see that.

Prisoner 65595 raises vital questions. There is, in my experience and observation, a smugness around Scottish public services and life. I never bought into it. We fail ourselves as well others.

What to do? Ethics of human rights matter, but are not (as even Rawls has admitted) the only tale in town. Ethics of care matter just as much (and well done Cameron for focussing on babies in prison). Creativity is our strength. Beyond our structures, institutions and thoughts we have the capacities to make our lives better. To reflect, to think and act with courage, to create.

If there is to be a true adventure in forging a new Scotland let it be brave, creative, honest and loving. And let us not lock up so many. 'Twill not be easy.

Angus Skinner
Former chief social work inspector for Scotland

Gerry Hassan’s article (SR, 24 February) was both timely and thoughtful on the rights of who can say what to whom and when they can say it. Our ancestors often engaged in very passionate debate without it becoming personal or offensive. We seem to be in danger of losing this. The refusal of the NUS officer even to appear on the same platform as Peter Tatchell is almost beyond belief. What has become of student debate? In the so-called debate leading up to the independence referendum the standard of interchange on both sides was frequently woeful, being little more than exchanging insults and put-downs. I expect we will get a replay as we lead up to the EU referendum.

So, on the one hand, we seem to be losing the knack of real debate on real issues. Yet the other side of the coin is that when people do want to engage in real debate on issues that matter to them, there is the danger that they will effectively be silenced because what they say might cause 'offence'. Do we have a right not to be offended? I would say a cautious 'no', as a general rule. However, it seems that in modern society, some do have (or claim) that right and some definitely do not. Among the most prejudiced and bigoted people whom I have ever met, have been some who constantly boast of their so-called 'liberal' credentials. Are we are entering a new Dark Age?

Alasdair Gordon

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