Here’s how Scotland can cut its prison population – Karyn McCluskey

Scotland’s prison population is at the highest level for a decade, so do you think we should build more prisons or try something different, something based on actual evidence, asks Karyn McCluskey.
Does Scotland need more cells like this one at HMP Barlinnie or a different approach? (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)Does Scotland need more cells like this one at HMP Barlinnie or a different approach? (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Does Scotland need more cells like this one at HMP Barlinnie or a different approach? (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

I’ve been engaging with lots of great students and teachers in Scotland who are studying modern studies. There were a few students tweeting about essays they had to do around what we should do about the high prison population, overcrowding and high reoffending rate. If only we could give the answer in 280 characters.

So here are some facts about prison in Scotland: we are at the highest prison population for 10 years; there is a huge evidence base about what works to reduce offending.

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Some people really need to be in prison, some of them for a really long time but a significant number could serve sentences in community, receive much-needed treatment, gains skills and have a better chance at living a safe and productive life.

I’ve been working in this area for such a long time and I know what I would change if I could, but what about you? What is it that you want Scotland to do about our sky-rocketing prison population?

Do you want to build another prison? The new HMP Berwyn in England is costing £250 million to build. There are around 2,000 places in this new prison. It costs £40,000 per place every year – that’s £80m a year to run a prison for 2,000 people. £80m a year.

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There are no low-cost options when it comes to justice - Karyn McCluskey

What else could you spend £80m on? Well, how about parenting support, health services, housing, youth services, mentoring, more visible community payback. How about spending it on evidence-based programs designed to get people off the justice hamster wheel and into jobs, education, stable housing and allowing them to contribute to society?

Do you want to increase sentences – lock people up for longer to teach them a lesson never to do it again? It’s an understandable instinct, but relying on the deterrent effect of prison sentences as a tactic to reduce offending not only flies in the face of all the evidence but would actually make the problem worse, swelling the prison population further, straining already stretched resources and increasing the pressure on the public purse. Which would be the least of the problems we would face.

Or do you want to do something different? A completely new paradigm based on the best evidence and the most effective methods of what reduces crime, reduces the number of victims and swells our community with healthy people who pay taxes and raise the next generation with resilience and hope.

This is not beyond us – we have a theoretical base and there are international examples of how it can work in practice. We are a small country of only five million souls – small and connected enough to effect huge change. It’s been done elsewhere and we can do it here. So what’s stopping us?

The plaudits we’ve received of late about our successes in violence reduction, youth custody and use of community sentences can’t go to our heads. The hard reality is that despite crime rates falling, our prison population is over 8,000, the highest in a decade. The prison crisis in England and Wales may have been hogging the headlines, but we are up there with them – our incarceration rate jostles with them for pole position and is amongst the highest in Europe.

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We are at a crossroads. And it is completely in our hands about which road we choose to follow. So which is it? Do we build prisons designed to house tomorrow the seven-year-olds of today? Or do we build our children a future – and a country – which is the safest in the world? But time is of the essence and the time for navel-gazing is over. If we want change, the time to act is now. So tell me, what would you choose?

Karyn McCluskey is chief executive of Community Justice Scotland