Does prison work? Ross Kemp finds out inside Barlinnie

For much of its 135 years, Scotland's largest prison has operated in the shadow of its own fearsome reputation. Glasgow's Barlinnie, 'Bar-L' to those who reside within, became synonymous with violence during the 20th century in much the same way as the city it was built to serve.
Ross Kemp flanked by prison guards. Picture: STVRoss Kemp flanked by prison guards. Picture: STV
Ross Kemp flanked by prison guards. Picture: STV

But while the jail’s Victorian halls are little changed from the day they were constructed, Scotland’s penal system is in a state of flux.

According to research published last week by the Centre for Justice Innovation (CJI), a London-based charity, the number of community sentences issued in Scotland over the past decade has increased by 18 per cent. The corresponding figure for England and Wales is a 25 per cent decrease.

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Underpinning the change is a growing body of evidence showing that in one of its core missions – rehabilitation – prison doesn’t work, at least not for those serving short sentences.

It’s a view shared by Ross Kemp, the actor and presenter who spent time in Barlinnie last month for a documentary to be screened this week.

While he was behind bars, Kemp met a sex offender serving four years for his third offence of downloading indecent images of children, and a murderer whose heroin addiction has caused his original 12-year sentence to stretch to 18 and counting.

Kemp agrees with the growing consensus in Scottish criminal justice circles that community sentences are more effective than short jail terms in reducing re-offending.

“I don’t see how prison can rehabilitate and punish at the same time – those things never go hand in hand,” he says.

“I might be being unfair to the prison service, but I wasn’t aware of much rehabilitation happening [in Barlinnie] and what are you going to do in three months anyway?

“Across the UK, 60 per cent of people who serve a three-month sentence will be back in prison within half a year. Short-term sentences don’t seem to work, not if 60 per cent re-offend within six months.”

Kemp, who has a reputation as a TV hardman and has spent time filming with eastern European football casuals and South American drug gangs, is thoughtful on the issue of prison reform.

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“What are prisons for?” he asks. “There’s a big turnover of people at Barlinnie who are trapped in a revolving door that come from certain postcodes. That’s not only true of prisons in Glasgow, but in London, Liverpool, Birmingham… we have to look at why people from certain areas see going to prison as a rite of passage.”

The issue of sentencing is back on the agenda after the Scottish Government announced its intention to introduce a presumption against jail terms of under 12 months.

It followed a public consultation in which respondents including Scotland’s chief inspector of prisons, charities and local councils backed the move.

Experts believe increased use of community sentencing has helped contribute to the falling re-conviction rate, which currently sits at an 18-year low.

Nevertheless, the figures remain stark – more than a quarter of offenders are re-convicted within a year, with 39 per cent of those given a custodial sentence of six months or less back in prison 12 months later.

According to the CJI, there is a growing divergence between Scotland and England on the issue of sentencing.

The charity says the number of community sentences north of the border has increased 21 per cent since the introduction of community payback orders in 2011, which often come in the form of unpaid work such as litter picking, cleaning graffiti or helping out in charity shops and community centres.

In its report published last week, the CJI concludes that community sentences are more effective and better value for money than short jail terms, with even the most expensive community sentence costing around a tenth of what it costs to keep someone in prison for a year.

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John Scott, a lawyer and convener of penal reform charity Howard League Scotland, says the differing outlooks of the governments north and south of the border is the “significant factor” in the divergence of ideas.

“South of the border there is still a clinging to the idea that prison works and custody is the answer to everything,” he says.

“There was a brief flurry under [former justice secretary] Michael Gove of being more thoughtful and considering alternatives to prison, but there’s a clinging to the idea of prison and as a result, the prison population is getting out of control and social work departments are swamped.

“In Scotland, there’s a desire to address some of the problems, such as the size of the prison population and prison’s effectiveness when compared with community penalties. Justice Secretary Michael Matheson has been interested in an evidence-based approach.”

Scotland’s prison population has fallen steadily over the past decade and currently sits at just under 7,500.

The figure is likely to decrease yet further with the growing presumption against short sentences and the closure of Cornton Vale women’s prison, which is due to be replaced with a smaller jail and a series of regional units allowing inmates to be housed closer to their families.

“The way ahead depends on the success of the treatment of women offenders,” says Scott. “If that works with women, there will be lessons to be learned for men and all that will lead to a saner, more rational and evidence-based penal policy where we don’t end up with too many people in prison.

“I’ve seen rehabilitation happen 
in prisons but it depends on the 
person not being in prison for too 
long. There comes a point where institutionalisation occurs, a person’s character becomes so degraded after a period of time – I’ve heard it said it’s around the 20-year mark. You don’t have the same person any more but someone who is incredibly damaged and hard to rehabilitate.”

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Despite isolated incidents, Scotland’s prisons have been largely free of the rioting and disorder experienced in English jails in recent months.

But the oft-repeated criticism that being sent to prison is an easy option or that time spent behind bars is akin to some sort of holiday is very wide of the mark.

Scotland’s prisons remain dangerous places where despite the best efforts of the authorities, weapons and drugs continue to blight everyday life.

During Kemp’s Barlinnie documentary, he is shown weapons confiscated from inmates, including a piece of wood with three razor blades embedded within which attaches to the middle finger using a cable tie and is designed to permanently disfigure the victim.

Kemp meets Hugh, an inmate who warns him about Barlinnie’s capricious violence.

“This yard can kick off in two minutes,” he says. “It can happen in a heartbeat. Everything can be nice and calm and before you know it, people are rolling about the ground boxing. People getting slashed and that. People punch you right out of your trainers in here. This is Barlinnie, mate.”

Another prisoner, Robert, is serving a seven-month sentence and has been incarcerated more times than he can remember.

Within weeks of the filming and his subsequent release, Robert again has outstanding charges against him.

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Appearing in the documentary, Barlinnie governor Michael Stoney says: “We send a lot of people for very short sentences and we effectively can’t do very much. In fact it probably causes more harm. They lose their tenancy, they could lose their job and they lose their connection with their family.

“I would rather it was about changing people [than punishing people]. Certainly we are trying to make prisons work better but we can [only] make it work for those we have here for a bit of time. For those who are just in and out, it’s a pointless exercise.”

Kemp agrees, and believes many offenders are sent to prison simply to get them off the streets, with no further forethought.

“I think we have sent people to prison because we just don’t like them,” he says. “If we send them to prison they’re off the streets for six months, but we’ve not dealt with the real problem of why they behave in that manner. It’s a big ask to solve that problem, but until we start to try, we’re going to have a growing prison population.”

While there is increasing agreement on the issue of short sentences, the subject remains far from straightforward.

The question of how to re-integrate more serious offenders back into society is even more vexed.

Last week, convicted killer Robert McIntosh admitted the attempted murder of Linda McDonald while on prison leave for a parole board hearing.

The attack, during which McIntosh battered his victim with a dumbbell, was similar to the murder he was sentenced to serve 15 years for in 2002.

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“There’s no question that, in some instances, short sentences can be counter-productive and alternative solutions are preferable, both from a resource and a rehabilitation point of view,” says Scottish Conservative justice spokesman Liam Kerr.

“But the SNP government’s desire to introduce a presumption against all sentences of 12 months and less goes significantly too far.

“At best, it makes a mockery of the justice system, and at worst it allows back on to the street dangerous criminals who ought to be locked up.

“This is particularly true in cases of domestic abuse.

“We know that the majority of jail sentences handed down for domestic violence would fall into this 12-months-and-less category. That would see some criminals walk into court, be convicted of domestic abuse, then wander straight back out with a fine or a community payback order.”

Kerr is clear that the penal system has a role to play in rehabilitation, but he believes the importance of punishment and keeping the public safe are currently being overlooked.

“The role of prison serves four key functions. One of them is rehabilitation, and we all agree far more has to be done on that front to help those who’ve gone down the wrong path, and reduce reoffending.

“But abolishing sentences of less than a year completely neglects the other three tenets – punishment, deterrence and keeping the public safe.

“One of the key failures of Scottish Government policy is that it draws a false conclusion – short sentences aren’t rehabilitating, therefore abolish short sentences.

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“In fact the problem is the alternatives are insufficiently resourced, lack respect and without reform will also fail to rehabilitate.

“Indeed hundreds of criminals wait months to start their work placements, a third of community payback orders aren’t even completed by the offender. It’s no wonder criminals don’t respect the justice system.”

Barlinnie’s first hall opened to offenders in the early 1880s. Since then, the prison has provided incarceration for some of Scotland’s most notorious criminals, including serial killer Peter Manuel, who was hanged there in 1958, one of the last men to be executed before the abolition of the death penalty.

Much has changed in the intervening decades, but the generations of young men trapped in a vicious circle of offending and imprisonment has remained depressingly the same.

Ross Kemp Behind Bars: Inside Barlinnie will be shown on Thursday at 9pm on STV