‘This is not just a prison. This is Barlinnie’

Glasgow's Barlinnie Prison - inmates in the exercise yard. Picture: Robert Perry
Glasgow's Barlinnie Prison - inmates in the exercise yard. Picture: Robert Perry
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One hundred and thirty years old this July, Barlinnie has seen generations of offenders – many from the same families – traipsing through its heavy doors. But what does the future hold for this crumbling, overcrowded Victorian prison? And, more importantly, the inmates who consider it a home from home?

BARLINNIE at dawn on a freezing February morning presents to the world a forbidding aspect, the brutal silhouette of its vast Victorian halls suggestive of a factory from the Industrial Revolution, albeit one in which the raw material and finished product are the same: men.

An inmate visits the prison dentist. Picture: Robert Perry

An inmate visits the prison dentist. Picture: Robert Perry

Bad men, some would say, and no doubt there are people in Scotland’s largest prison – the defilers of children, the tracksuited cleavers of flesh – to whom that old-fashioned word ‘wicked’ could be reasonably applied. But there are many other prisoners who, one might argue, are victims themselves – of poverty, of poor parenting, of drug addiction – and who have ended up here, in part, because of the family and area in which they grew up; most of the 10,000 prisoners who pass through the prison each year come from the most impoverished postcodes in Glasgow.

Though it looms large in the legend of the city, the prison remains a mystery to most citizens. Unless you live in the north-east of Glasgow, you might never in your life see even the brooding exterior, except perhaps for the blunt chimneys and barbed wire glimpsed from the motorway and soon forgotten. To walk freely inside its yards, halls and cells is a rare privilege that feels rather like visiting a national monument. As governor Derek McGill puts it, “This is not just a prison. This is Barlinnie.”

McGill is a silver-haired 57-year-old whose navy pinstripes set him apart from his staff of 350 uniformed officers. He has come through the ranks, however, and is far from aloof. For 18 months he has been in charge, and is as proud of his position as the ‘Guvnor’ mug on his desk suggests. He finds Barlinnie endlessly fascinating. “Right,” he says, “are you ready for a wee walk about?”

Most of the prison population is held in five four-storey halls, the thick sandstone walls darkened and pitted with age. At the front of each block is a tall, arched window; above each main entrance is a painted crown. Inside, the brick walls are painted white, and the first impression is one of space and light; long vanishing points and a blue sky visible through the high glass canopy.

Barlinnie Prison's inclusion manager David Marsh. Picture: Robert Perry

Barlinnie Prison's inclusion manager David Marsh. Picture: Robert Perry

The reception area is as hectic and cramped as the halls are airy. There are 74 prisoners leaving the prison for court appearances. Prisoners yet to be processed stare sullenly through the windows of the claustrophobic holding cubicles, known as ‘dog boxes’.

A prisoner walks forward and has a metal-detecting wand swept over his body. Brian – a 37-year-old with pale jail skin, short dark hair and hollow eyes – is a veteran of the search process. He has been in and out for years. This time he has been charged with serious assault. “I’m in for defending my property,” he says with stale defiance. “I was attacked in my house, but because I’ve had three previous convictions, here I am.”

How does Barlinnie now compare with how it used to be? “Too cushy,” he says. “Too easy for the cons. It used to be that you respected the screws.”

Brian is against having television in the cells. Some prison officers consider telly the best thing that ever happened in Barlinnie because it pacifies the prisoners, making them less likely to harm themselves and others. However, TV has also had a huge impact on the literacy of prisoners, which has knock-on effects with regard to rehabilitation and future employment. “I couldn’t read or write when I first came in here,” says Brian. “If I’d had the telly back then, I would never have learned. I’ve managed to get a bit of intelligence about me now; not that you’d think so, with me still coming in and out of here at my age.”

The majority of Barlinnie inmates have been charged with or convicted of thefts, breaches of the peace, drugs offences, sex offences and assaults of varying seriousness, with a little over half serving sentences of between one and four years. The prison also holds, in a small segregation unit, or – colloquially – the Wendy House, a few prisoners unable to mix with the general population, including high-ranking gangsters. Barlinnie’s intelligence unit helps officers decide which halls are the most appropriate to house particular prisoners; mortal enemies, rival gang members and those owing drug money to affiliates of dealers are kept well away from each other. It is similar to deciding where to seat bickering relatives at a wedding reception, albeit on a much large scale and with much bloodier consequences.

The familial metaphor is apt. Incarceration in Barlinnie is dynastic. The prison has been home from home for three generations of some families. One prison officer says his father worked here for 35 years, locking up the fathers and grandfathers of the prisoners now in his custody. There is a dismal sense of destiny about it all.

Most prisoners are in their 20s. Just boys, really, in prison-issue jeans and red sweatshirts. Their cells, which measure about two metres wide by three and a half long, have bunks and glossy girly posters and are strongly redolent of teenage bedrooms; the small window, high on the back wall, is curtainless, but prisoners improvise with T-shirts and pillowslips, creating bands of red, white and blue or green, white and orange, depending on footballing allegiance.

Many of the prisoners, perhaps most, will have been working up to Barlinnie, having first spent time in Polmont Young Offenders Institute. This is a grim post-industrial echo of the apprenticeship system. The young cons here are apprentices no longer; they are journeymen criminals whose scars mark their fraternity with that particular guild. That’s one of the first things you notice here – the scars. They zig-zag across faces unmarked by age, and carve their way through short hair like contour lines on a map. One lad has a thumb stitched where his nose should be, having lost it to a samurai sword.

New prisoners arrive daily with cuts and bruises, but it is possible to get hurt in Barlinnie itself. Since April 2010, there have been two serious and 15 minor prisoner-on-staff assaults, plus 53 serious and 56 minor prisoner-on-prisoner assaults. Weapons have been fashioned from sharpened forks and screws; a favourite piece of Barlinnie hardware is a toothbrush with two razor blades pressed into the melted plastic. “You can tell a jail slashing,” says McGill, “because you get a great big thick scar on your face, too wide to stitch properly.”

Barlinnie’s atmosphere is a curious mix of tension, resentful boredom, melancholy and gallus gallows humour. “Haw!” shouts one young prisoner, Paul, trying to attract the attention of a passing officer. Paul is serving 27 months for assaulting a policeman and wishes to discuss a change to the dinner menu. “What’s happenin’ wi’ thae square sausages? Thae links are gonnae kill folk.”

Not all exchanges are so amusing. In D Hall at lunchtime, a prisoner called James, a tall man with longish dark hair, becomes very angry all of a sudden. “You’ve no got a f***in’ warrant to hold me,” he screams. “I know what happened to my family and girlfriend in here. You’re gonnae get me murdered.” He is bundled into his cell and the door locked. D Hall holds prisoners with mental health issues. Mostly, they are not so ill that they can be sectioned, but not well enough to be safely out in the community, so here they remain. The governor points out one disturbing, shambling figure in particular. “He set himself on fire a couple of weeks ago, and when they went in to get him out he attacked two firemen.”

Stevie Geddes, an officer in E Hall, says the job requires constant vigilance. Many old hands among the staff were young officers at the time of the 1987 riot, and though the Barlinnie regime is now far less confrontational, the memory lingers of how quickly disorder can escalate. “We deal with some of the most violent people in Scotland,” says Geddes. “There was a member of staff assaulted in C Hall yesterday. We’ve had officers with broken jaws and all sorts.”

Violence is commonplace in Barlinnie, only the severity varies. Anything can cause a fight; the illicit trade in merchandise, for example, inflates both the price and perceived worth of items that, outside of prison, would be considered disposable. “A tenner bag of heroin in here is worth £60,” Geddes explains. “The going rate for a mobile phone is £1,000. A Mars Bar to you and I is 40p; in here, it’s high stakes.”

Drug use is rife. Prevalence testing suggests that 82 per cent of those admitted to Barlinnie are on drugs; on release, 10 per cent fail a test for illegal drugs. Narcotics get into the prison in various ways. A small bag of heroin may be passed from mouth to mouth during a visiting time kiss. Less romantically, a drug user attending court and believing that he is going to be sent to Barlinnie will often hide a mobile phone and as much heroin as possible up his back passage, a part of the body known to prisoners as ‘the bank’.

Packages containing drugs also come over the perimeter wall, sometimes fired by crossbow or catapult, during daily exercise; if the prisoner for whom it is intended is lucky, he will be able to lift it before the officer notices. There are also prison officers who will bring drugs and other items into Barlinnie – either because they are well paid to do so, or because they are too frightened to say no. McGill loathes such betrayals – “I don’t like it when they sell us out for the other side” – and has taken measures to toughen up security screening of staff.

A daily ritual at Barlinnie, a sort of profane communion, is the dispensation of the heroin substitute methadone. Prisoners who have a prescription before coming to prison continue to receive it inside at the same dosage. Barlinnie is the biggest single-site dispenser of methadone in western Europe – 400 or so prisoners receive it every morning, adding up to around 8,700 litres (over 15,000 pints) of the green liquid each year. Prisoners are brought to the waiting room of the clinic ten at a time and each in turn goes up to the hatch to receive his dose from the nurse. After swallowing, each prisoner must also drink a cup of water. This is to prevent them from holding the drug at the back of the throat then subsequently hawking it up to sell – a practice known as ‘the methadone spit’.

Talk to any random selection of prisoners in Barlinnie and the chances are that most will have become involved in theft or violence because of their addiction to drugs or alcohol or both. What you hear again and again is that prison, for chronic addicts, is a safe place. They can detox, get fed, stay alive for a while longer.

“Jail saved my life,” says David, 47, serving three years for head-butting a drug dealer. “The only time my ma could sleep at night was when I was in here. She knew I wouldn’t be found with a needle in my arm.”

Big Mick, 42, used to be a security guard, but since his mid-30s, when he split from his wife and children, has been lost in drink. He has had 17 sentences for shoplifting in the last seven years. This time he is in for four months. He finds it impossible to stay sober outside prison. “I see the pain it is causing my ma and da, but the only time I can stop is in here.” When he is released, he intends to commit further crimes – and get caught – so he is sent to Barlinnie again. He is not the only prisoner who admits to this strategy. Statistics show that around 90 per cent of those prisoners currently inside will return in future. Some hardly get further than the three off-licenses at the bottom of the street.

The last prisoner to commit suicide here was on his 50th stretch and was only 32. “I think he’d just had enough,” says Governor McGill. “They cannot break the cycle of offending. People blame the prison service for that, but we deal with them as best we can. I think we do a great job. Look at what we do with work, with prisoner programmes, getting people off their drugs, getting them to put on weight again. By and large, they turn their life around when they are in here. But what we don’t do is go out the door with them.

“I know people will talk about a 90 per cent failure rate because the prisoners keep coming back, but it’s not my failure rate, or the Scottish Prison Service’s failure rate, it’s society’s failure rate because there’s not enough outside the prison walls.”

Barlinnie is in many ways a microcosm of society, and its members have the same everyday needs – both physical and spiritual. There is a church in the prison grounds, a barber, a dentist and a gym. Services are held every Sunday and 250 haircuts are given each week. The widespread use of methadone, which dries the mouth and encourages tooth decay, is one reason why the dentist, Dr Kieran Fallon, is often described as the busiest man in the prison. The kitchen, meanwhile, serves up 1.5 million meals a year, including porridge, of course, and is staffed in large part by Chinese and Vietnamese migrants caught during police raids on cannabis factories.

The prison laundry, too, is staffed by inmates, specifically the sex offenders. The mainstream prisoners would not tolerate their food being prepared by the ‘beasts’ of the jail, but find it acceptable that they wash and iron their clothes. Also, according to the governor, they are simply very good at the job; there is, apparently, something in the psychology of a sex offender that makes him neat and fastidious. Seeing these pale, plump, watchful, hateful, sad-eyed men folding bedsheets is just one of the many remarkable, troubling things about Barlinnie.

Come July, the prison will have been open for 130 years. Built to hold 1,018 prisoners, it has rarely done so, and is almost always massively overcrowded. There are, at present, around 1,500 prisoners in Barlinnie, most of them sharing cells built for single occupancy. The population is seasonal. Christmas and summer are relatively quiet. From August onwards, the number increases rapidly, and last year reached its highest ever level – 1,786.

When Low Moss prison opens on the outskirts of Bishopbriggs next month, it is likely to offer Barlinnie some brief respite, but McGill does not believe it will be a long-term solution. “Judges know when Barlinnie’s not full, and all of a sudden remand numbers increase,” he says.

The 2008 Scottish Prisons Commission noted that high prison populations are more likely to “drive reoffending than reduce it” and favoured community-based sentences over short jail terms. The result is that Barlinnie now has far fewer prisoners serving less than six months, but the prison actually has more prisoners altogether. It would appear that remanding a prisoner in custody, awaiting trial, is being used to take troublemakers out of communities for up to 140 days, without imposing the politically difficult short sentences. The significant downside is that there are so many – right now, around 550 – men being held in prison for quite long periods without having been tried for any crime.

Overcrowding is a problem because it means a large proportion of the prison population cannot access work placements education, or many of the rehabilitative programmes that are supposed to help them change into useful members of society while inside. According to the most recent inspection, on average 70.4 per cent of the population is locked up in cells instead of being on purposeful activity. Prisoners can spend up to 23 hours a day locked up with a cell-mate – or ‘co-pilot’ – they loathe. Physical fights in these circumstances, prisoners say, are a daily occurrence.

What, then, is the future of this Victorian jail in the 21st century? The chief inspector of prisons, while noting that the institution is well led and run, and drawing particular attention to the excellent care prisoners – often frightened and despairing – receive during their first night in custody, has called for its redevelopment as soon as possible. McGill himself believes that by 2020 the present buildings will have fallen out of use and a new prison built nearby. Barlinnie’s own long stretch is, it seems, coming to an end. “It would be sad to see it demolished completely,” says the Governor.

“There’s a huge amount of history here. You could imagine them running tours. This could be the Alcatraz of Glasgow. I think even the prisoners would be sorry to see this go. Places like Polmont don’t have any atmosphere. Barlinnie has got a lot of life.”

A lot of life and, despite the odds, a lot of love. By 5pm, there is a long queue for visiting. It’s almost all women: dolled-up wives and girlfriends; sorrowful mums and grannies. One lad catches the eye – maybe six years old, cute in his crewcut and best tracksuit, walking round in slow, bored circles, heel-to-toe, swinging a key for the prison locker, familiar already with the rules of visiting. How many birthdays, you wonder, has his father missed, and how many to come? And here’s the most dreadful question of all: will that wee boy, too, one day end up here or in whatever prison replaces it?

Barlinnie, every groan and dirty stone of it, has a habit of weighing down the mind with such fatalistic thoughts. So, as fascinating as it has been, it is a relief to finally leave the prison and walk out into the cold dusk, a half-moon rising high and pure and free above those grimly iconic chimneys.