Sometimes we tell ourselves stories about the kind of country we are and choose to believe them despite the niggling doubts in the back of our minds. It takes evidence of a graphic and incontrovertible nature to shock us into a recognition that we are falling short of the values we espouse and force us to take a fresh look at what we stand for.
So it has been with the death of Allan Marshall. Marshall, 30, was an inmate at Edinburgh Prison when he suffered a cardiac arrest after being restrained by officers more than four years ago. Last month a Fatal Accident Inquiry ruled his death was entirely preventable. But it wasn’t until the CCTV footage was put in the public domain – until we could actually see officers kicking Marshall as he struggled for breath – that the full horror of his final moments truly dawned. No previous death – not even the suicide of 16-year-old William Lindsay, which shocked those who worked in Polmont Young Offenders’ Institution to their core – provoked the kind of apology Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf gave last week.
The footage raises many questions about this specific incident. Why did the officers behave so brutally? Were they given immunity from prosecution in exchange for co-operating with the FAI? Were they disciplined in the wake of the judgment?
There is also the Scottish Prison Service’s worrying attempt to prevent the footage being published which suggests both a contempt for freedom of the press and a desire to cover up rather than scrutinise what went wrong and ensure it cannot happen again.
However, even were all these issues to be satisfactorily addressed, they would barely touch the surface of the problem with our prison system. Marshall’s death did not happen in isolation. It took place within a context and that context is over-crowding and heightened tension; that context is political rhetoric out of sync with political reality.
Ever since the SNP took control at Holyrood, we have heard about the Scottish Government’s progressive approach to prisons. The last three justice secretaries – Yousaf, Michael Matheson and Kenny MacAskill – all positioned themselves on the liberal end of the criminal justice spectrum. When Chris Grayling was banning books in English jails, the SPS was pioneering programmes aimed at maintaining prisoners’ bonds with their families and gearing them up to reintegrate with their communities after release. There were baby massage and homework clubs, drug recovery cafés and a recognition that many inmates were victims as well as perpetrators.
Most innovative was the introduction of a through-care service which saw support officers appointed to accompany and help settle prisoners into the community on release.
The message was clear: the Scottish government and the SPS were committed to reducing the population: to transforming Scotland’s status as the country that locks up the largest proportion of its citizens in Western Europe.
So where are we now? When I spoke to the SPS on Thursday, there were 8,256 people in custody, almost 300 more than in 2008 when Dr Andrew McLellan, the then Chief Inspector of Prisons, warned our jails were bursting at the seams. In Barlinnie, a huge, Victorian monstrosity, there were 1,500 – 500 over the design capacity – and the same figure as in 2008.
Despite all the publicity around the incarceration of women, and the closure of Cornton Vale, there were around seven more women in custody than at the time of Dame Elish Angiolini’s damning report in 2012. Remand figures have stayed roughly stable. Only the number of under-21s in custody has decreased – from around 700 to around 350 – which is just as well because if it hadn’t, the total figure would be around 8,600 and our struggling estate would be broken.
In an attempt to bring numbers down, the Scottish government introduced a presumption against sentences of less than 12 months. This is sensible. Such sentences are too short for effective rehabilitation. But policy-making has been inconsistent. The SNP also ended automatic early release for prisoners jailed for more than four years, which may or may not have been the right decision, but added to the pressure on the service.
Nor will the presumption against shorter sentences help to tackle the growth in the number of long-term offenders. The average length of a life sentence has increased from 11 to 19 years since 2000 while the number of sexual offenders serving lengthy sentences has doubled from around 700 to around 1,400 in the same period.
And the problem is self-perpetuating. More pressure on the system means less access to all those initiatives aimed at tackling recidivism. Earlier this year the through-care service was axed because, of course, when jails are heaving officers cannot leave the front-line. But, when individuals are handed a small sum of money and sent back into the communities in which they offended, we should not be surprised when they quickly find themselves back behind bars.
Third sector organisations which have traditionally provided many of the support services inside jail are facing the same cuts. The result is prisoners locked up for more hours in the day and released without their underlying trauma or their offending behaviour addressed.
Meanwhile political opponents continue to accuse the SNP of being a soft touch. The Scottish Conservatives are currently lobbying for whole life sentences for the most serious offenders similar to those in England and Wales.
The blame for this cannot be laid at the door of a single party; partly it is down to demographics; partly to Westminster’s austerity policies; partly to the SNP’s failure to bridge the gap between the policies they want to pursue and the policies they think the public will accept.
But the consequence is our prison service is not, in fact, a glowing example to the rest of the world; it is an incoherent mess – a place where good intentions have gone awry and tragedies continue to happen.
What is needed now is a national conversation; an attempt to establish what it is we want from our jails. Do we want them to be criminal hothouses, where petty offenders learn to be hardened offenders and hardened offenders are a lost cause? Or is the point of a penal system to provide a place where the most vulnerable – and the most dangerous – are given a chance to become productive citizens not merely because it’s better for them, but because it is better for society?
If it’s the latter, the Scottish government needs to stop tinkering round the edges and reduce the population so those for whom custody is inevitable can access the rehabilitative programmes that may transform their lives.
In the process, tough, unpalatable questions need to be confronted, for example: what purpose does it serve to jail frail, elderly men for historic sex offences?
We need to have faith too in the value of investing in support services: to believe the initial outlay will be more than justified by the eventual savings. Because one thing’s for sure: while our prisons are bulging and deaths are stacking up, we cannot keep pretending to be something that we’re not.