Insight: Scottish prisons think outside the box

An innovative documentary reveals how Scottish prisons are thinking outside the box in an effort to break the endless cycle of reoffending, writes Dani Garavelli

An innovative documentary reveals how Scottish prisons are thinking outside the box in an effort to break the endless cycle of reoffending, writes Dani Garavelli

In his cell at Low Moss prison in Bishopbriggs, Billy is taking a child’s drawing down from the wall. It depicts two lads beside a rainbow and is headed “Eternal Love” and “Bros”. Stuck up with the label from a milk ­carton, it was made for Billy by his 10-year-old brother.

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The 35-year-old offender is packing up because he is about to be released after serving an 18-month sentence for assault, causing “permanent disfigurement”, “permanent impairment” and “danger to life”. Billy has told his little brother he is in jail “and about how horrible it is” in an attempt to stop him embarking on a life of crime. Now, as he confronts an uncertain future, he says he’s trying be “a better man”. “Straight and narrow. Straight and narrow. That’s it,” he says. “Sometimes you get drove on to a different path, but you’re hoping no tae find they paths. So straight and narrow. Hopefully.”

As Billy walks – straight and narrow – down a long prison corridor, out of the front door into the sunlight, his description of how he expects to feel when he gets out echoes in the mind. “It will be a good day, I’ll be feeling joy,” he says. “I’ll no have my hands in the air, I’ll no have nothing in the air, but, inside, my belly will be doing jiggily wilkies.”

Billy is one of many inmates featured in a major new documentary series, Prison: First And Last 24 Hours, made by STV Productions for Sky 1, which starts next week.

The company behind the Scottish Bafta-winning Fire In The Night was granted unprecedented access to four of Scotland’s jails – Low Moss, Barlinnie in Riddrie, Greenock and Cornton Vale in Stirling – to make eight hour-long ­programmes exploring the challenges faced by those trying to break the ­seemingly endless cycle of offending and incarceration.

The documentary series is well-timed: in the past few years, the prison system has been high up the political agenda in Scotland, with new facilities being invested in, even as campaigners pushed for alternatives to custody for all but the most serious offenders. Since 2007, the number of young offenders being locked up has halved – with an entire building at Polmont Young Offenders Institute now empty – and there seems to be a growing consensus that sentences of less than a year do more harm than good.

Women for Independence campaigners – who believe the vast majority of female offenders should receive non-custodial sentences – forced the government into a U-turn over plans for a new women’s jail at Inverclyde to replace Cornton Vale and are now lobbying for changes that would see prison taken off the menu for all cases heard in the summary courts.

Attitudes within the Scottish Prison Service are changing too. Today, there is much more recognition of the hurdles prisoners encounter on release – homelessness, joblessness, addiction, lack of emotional support – and much more emphasis on preparing them for successful reintegration into the community.

By focusing on the first and last 24 hours of prisoners’ sentences, the documentary-makers hope to move beyond the tired tropes of banging doors and swinging keys and examine how individual offenders’ lives have gone awry and what chance they have of forging a better future.

Sometimes the conclusion they reach is bleak. In the first programme, they talk to Paddy, who has been homeless so long he views prison as the easiest way to secure bed and board. The man who once dreamed of being a midwife or a chef, has the defeated look of the long-term addict. He effectively put himself in jail by stealing alcohol from a Tesco in the knowledge he’d be caught and tells the interviewers that on his release he plans to have a drink and collect his methadone script before heading to the housing office to sort out accommodation in a homeless hostel. Paddy has no faith in his ability to stay out of jail and it is no surprise to discover that less than seven weeks after his release he is back inside.

But the series also looks at the way prisons are coming up with ground-breaking initiatives to ease the transition back into the community and support those who want to make a new start. “Without a doubt, the most frustrating thing for prison officers must be working hard, building relationships with these guys, getting them on the straight and narrow, just to see them coming back a few weeks or even a few days later,” says executive producer Mick McAvoy. “They know perceptions of prisoners need to change in order for them to have any hope of not returning.

“I do feel there’s a sense that this is something that is being confronted with more zeal in Scotland than in England and that Scotland seems to be trying new things in order to help. For example, while we were negotiating access with Low Moss prison, they were about to hold their very first jobs fare. Local employers were going in to meet prisoners alongside the prison officers who had helped them acquire new skills.”

Greenock Prison has piloted a programme of through-care which involves prison officers supporting inmates through the first few weeks of freedom. This may involve organising transport from the prison to their home-town, accompanying them to the housing office and liaising with third sector agencies on their behalf. “To give you an example, we had someone in the early days of through-care who turned up at a council office looking for the key to the flat they’d been allocated, but the person with the key wasn’t there,” says Tom Fox, head of corporate affairs for the Scottish Prison Service.

“They were told: ‘You’ll need to come back on Monday.’ For somebody coming out of prison that’s not good and you can imagine what might happen if they got upset about it – they would probably have ended up back with us on Tuesday. Instead, the through-care support officer with that individual was able to explain the circumstances and act in an advocacy role to make sure the situation was resolved; and it was.”

Although the series doesn’t really touch on this, several prisons have also found ways to help parents maintain a close relationship with their children while serving their sentences (which in turn improves their chances of successful reintegration). Some jails have introduced homework clubs, while, for the past couple of years, Low Moss has invited children to come for breakfast on their first day of school so photographs can be taken and dads don’t miss out on this landmark moment.

The four jails involved in Prisons: First And Last 24 Hours are very different in character. Barlinnie, with its Victorian accommodation blocks and its traditional cell doors, is still forbidding, but the apple-green entrance to Low Moss – which was redeveloped and reopened in 2007 – looks more like the foyer to an orthodontist practice than a prison and there are many aesthetically pleasing touches, such as blue, green and yellow stained-glass panels the length of the corridor Billy walks down. The cells also vary from jail to jail. Billy’s is sizeable, with a kettle, a sink and a TV; the cell given to a female inmate at Greenock prison has a flower stencilled on to the wall and tie-back curtains, although the paint under the window is flaking. McAvoy says he was impressed by the positivity in all the prisons, even Barlinnie, where he encountered a mutual respect between prisoners and prison officers, and where laughter could often be heard echoing down the hallway.

“All the governors were quite inspirational. I was really taken aback by how modern they seemed in their thinking, how determined they were to ensure it was not just a place of punishment,” he says. “There was a great quote from the governor at Cornton Vale who said: ‘You can hear arguments all the time about prisons becoming harsher, but no matter what the prisons do, they aren’t ever going to be as harsh as the world [some of these prisoners] have come from’.” People need to ask themselves who they’d prefer as a next-door-neighbour – a prisoner who has spent 18 hours a day locked up or somebody who has had the opportunity to improve themselves, to fix some of the problems they went into jail with?”

The first programme opens with Natasha, a young mother arriving at Greenock prison to start a three-month sentence for shoplifting. Natasha has been in Greenock before and so is familiar with the demeaning initiation rites: the Body Orifice Security Scanner – which checks if she has any contraband secreted on her person – the rifling through of personal possessions and, most humiliatingly, the strip search. Allowed one phone call, she chooses to ring her gran to check on her children. “I wish my kids had a better mum,” she says. “But I have too many problems. I know they are well looked after when I am in here.”

Natasha says she always gets into a lot of fights when she’s in prison. Her facial expressions and posture are a blend of defiance and vulnerability and, as with Paddy, you can’t help wondering how another spell in jail will help her or society at large.

Though the number of young offenders has halved, Scotland is still locking up a greater proportion of women than England or Ireland. Of the 400 women in Scottish jails, a third are on remand and, of those who are not, 80 per cent are serving sentences of less than six months. Only 2 per cent of female inmates have been convicted of serious violence. Many have mental health problems.

Studies have shown the jailing of women has a profound impact on their children, extended families and the community as a whole. After plans for the new prison at Inverclyde were scrapped, a new facility for 80 offenders was proposed for Stirling along with another five – capable of holding 20 each – to be scattered across the country. But Maggie Mellon, a leading campaigner on prisons with Women for Independence, believes the total number of female prisoners in Scotland could easily be reduced to below 100.

“We are saying: ‘Divert at every single opportunity’. At the moment, if a woman is incredibly distressed and threatening to kill herself, and the psychiatric hospital’s not interested, or if a woman is drunk and causing mayhem in the street, the police are forced to arrest her, then they have to charge her and if the fiscal decides to prosecute, she will end up in court. We are saying services like the Willow Centre or Tomorrow’s Women [which work with female offenders] should be available to the police without charge,” says Mellon.

Prison officers too recognise many of those who come through the doors of the jail would be better off elsewhere. “For some people, prison is the right, or even the only option, but there’s a lot of others who shouldn’t be there,” says Fox. “There are times where prison may be actively harmful because a sentence of a few months is just long enough to lose a tenancy, lose a job, lose a relationship, but not enough time to provide rehabilitation.”

The fewer people there are behind bars, the easier it is for prisons to concentrate on those for whom there can be no non-custodial alternative. “We know locking people up and throwing away the key doesn’t work – if it did, the US would have the lowest crime figures in the world,” says Fox. “If we encourage and support people to change their lives it makes the world safer for all of us.” «

Prison: First And Last 24 Hours will air on Sky 1 at 10pm from Wednesday, 28 October

Twitter: @DaniGaravelli1