Leader: £100m prison may be a luxury we must afford

PRISONS have two key functions. One is to protect the public by keeping dangerous criminals in confinement, mindful of staff protection and prisoner safety. The second is to sustain an environment that aids and encourages rehabilitation.

Prisons must respect these two functions if public money is to be efficiently and efficaciously spent. The report by Chief Inspector Brigadier Hugh Munro on Scotland’s largest prison, Barlinnie in Glasgow, is an unsparing criticism of its current state. It finds staff and prisoners at risk of violence, searches for drugs and weapons hampered, and access restricted to programmes aimed at tackling re-offending. It is also overcrowded. Barlinnie was designed to hold 1,018 inmates, but at present houses 1,565, with the number having risen as high as 1,700 in the past year.

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The problem is not so much recognition of the need for reform as the cost of building an effective prison in an era of severe stringency in public spending. The estimated cost of rebuilding Barlinnie is put at £100 million.

The report argues that this should be a priority. Most would agree. But carving money out of other deserving budgets is the difficulty. The compelling case for action is that without such rebuilding, Barlinnie will continue to be the manufacturer of the very ills that pile extra costs on society: repeat offending and further demands on police, welfare and social work time and budgets.

A prison fit for purpose may offer the real prospect of clawing back the outlay over time. The big question is can we afford not to?