Euan McColm: Scotland heading for prison catastrophe

Sometimes, it’s difficult to care about the conditions inside prisons.

So heinous are some crimes that even the most liberally minded among us may struggle to worry that the perpetrator is treated fairly and humanely. If you’ve never read a report about a child-killer or a rapist and hoped his fellow inmates dole out their own brutal punishments, then you’re a better person than I am.

Fortunately, our baser instincts do not inform justice policy. If we truly believe prison must be about rehabilitation as well as punishment, it's necessary for us to treat even the most despicable convicts with compassion and dignity.

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This, however, is more easily said than done. Much of Scotland’s prison estate is so run down and overcrowded that it’s simply impossible for the system to meet demand, never mind to live up to expectations of what a civilised penal system should be.

The implications of this state of affairs are grave, indeed.

Michael Stoney, the governor of Scotland’s largest jail, Barlinnie, warns that the facility is so overcrowded and outdated that it could suffer a “catastrophic failure" at any time.

The Glasgow prison is now running at 140 per cent capacity, with almost 1,400 prisoners when it was designed to hold a maximum of 987.

A replacement for the jail - ruled unfit for purpose in 2020 by watchdog, HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIPS) - was due to open in 2025. That has been pushed back until 2027. Anyone who’s paid the slightest attention to the Scottish Government’s handling of infrastructure projects may be forgiven for wondering whether that new deadline will be met.

According to Stoney, Barlinnie simply cannot last until 2027.

“At some point,” he says, “it may be a catastrophic failure, [but] by then it's too late. We know that day is coming.

"A lot of my time is just trying to keep the prison functional.”

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Barlinnie is now so stretched that staff consider it a success if they are able to ensure each inmate has a daily shower. In these circumstances, how can we expect prisoners to be rehabilitated?

The prison governor’s intervention comes a month after an Irish judge blocked the extradition of a prisoner to Scotland on humanitarian grounds. Mr Justice Paul McDermott said Richard Sharples - wanted in Scotland in connection with firearms offences and assault - faced being locked up for 22 hours a day in less than 10 feet of space. This, the judge added, meant Scottish prison authorities could not guarantee the prisoner’s complex mental health needs could be met.

It’s not difficult to see why improving the lives of prisoners isn’t top of ambitious politicians’ lists. Voters, understandably, prioritise the needs of themselves and their families. Survey after survey shows that, more than anything else, people want improvements to the NHS and the education system. And when it comes to justice, we want a fully funded and staffed police service and tough sentencing for the most violent and dangerous offenders.

There is little public demand for safer, cleaner prisons.

However, this is an issue on which politicians must act, regardless of public antipathy to criminals.

Some offenders are beyond help. No amount of effort at rehabilitation will change their behaviour. But we can’t simply write off everyone who ends up behind bars as being beyond salvation.

A prison system which can support and sustain proper rehabilitation and education will make for a safer society. Almost everyone currently serving a prison sentence will be released at some point. Of course, it is in all of our interests for those men and women to be supported in changing their patterns of behaviour. Those who take the hardline view that imprisonment should be a relentlessly harsh experience contribute, through their intransigence, to the world being a more dangerous place.

While there is a discussion to be had about creating a more compassionate and supportive prison system, it is also legitimate to ask whether - in some cases - tougher sentencing is necessary.

Recently introduced sentencing guidelines, based on the idea that those under 25 are not fully developed, intellectually, mean that we have seen instances of serious criminals - including rapists - walking free from court despite being found guilty.

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This sort of thing further undermines the case for making a priority of improving the prison estate.

Amid legitimate outrage over lenient sentencing, there is little space for a discussion of the benefits of treating prisoners better.

We know that a great many of the men and women currently incarcerated are, themselves, victims. We know that our justice system, which is often too lenient when it comes to serious offenders, can be unduly harsh in the cases of people for whom prison is not necessary.

The rise of the SNP over the past two decades has, in part, been fuelled by Scottish exceptionalism, by the belief that those of us who live north of the border are somehow more compassionate and wiser than our neighbours in Carlisle and beyond.

This belief in some kind of Caledonian super-morality does us no good. Rather, it leads to complacency, to the belief that the flaws which undermine every society simply do not exist in Scotland to the extent that any kind of curative action is necessary.

That an Irish judge would not extradite a prisoner to Scotland on human rights grounds should be a matter of national shame.

Yes, society must be protected from violent criminals so, yes, some offenders must be locked up, but the instinct must be to see prison as a last resort. And once the decision is made to removed someone’s liberty, we must be sure that we treat them with respect, no matter how horrified we may be by their crimes.



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