Lesley Riddoch: Jail failure cries out for an alternative

If Cornton Vale shuts and constructive debate on prisons policy follows, common sense is winning, writes Lesley Riddoch

This is not a plea for compassion. You’ve read the emotional argument already. We all have. A middle-class professional visits a jail, and fragments of conversation with defiant, broken and hopeful inmates leave them moved, haunted, angry and guilty. The uncomfortable truths they reveal motivate a few more people to question the efficiency of jail – until time passes and another subject grabs the media spotlight.

This is one problem with compassion. It fades away.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

The release of the Lockerbie bomber in 2009 demonstrates another difficulty. Many Scots were quietly satisfied that Kenny MacAskill opted for “compassion” in the decision on al Megrahi’s fate. Doctors judged the man would die. The choice appeared to be death in Greenock jail or death in Libya. Vengeance or compassion.

Choosing the compassionate option created a Scottish contrast with the vengeful, Old Testament outlook of London and Washington. Two and a half years on though, Megrahi’s survival reveals an inconvenient truth. Our sympathy was limited and date-stamped. That is another problem with compassion. It is highly conditional. So here we go again.

Tomorrow a report by Elish Angiolini is expected to recommend the demolition of Scotland’s only women’s prison at Cornton Vale – and whether the former lord advocate uses the word or not, there’s no doubt compassion will dominate debate.

In 2008 I was a member of the Scottish Prisons Commission, tasked with finding out why Scotland imprisons roughly three times more people than European neighbours (despite a roughly similar crime rate.)

We visited Cornton Vale and afterwards I too felt moved, angry and guilty. One young drug-using woman – due for release the next day – openly predicted she’d be straight back on the streets begging to feed her drug habit. Another woman – wraith-like, quiet and serene – had been admitted the previous day after a suicide attempt. The sheriff decided this was the only way to guarantee good treatment fast.

By contrast, three Jamaican women were talkative, healthy and demanding. They’d been lifted in Aberdeen smuggling hard drugs as the price for receiving forged UK passports. In multi-cultural London they might be easily overlooked. But not in Aberdeen… or Cornton Vale.

“Why can’t we go outside to work the ground and plant our own vegetables? The food in here is terrible – we have time. These girls (pointing at the thin Scots around them) – these girls need building up. They need fresh air. We could show them how to grow their own food. Wouldn’t that be better than sitting cooped up in here?”

They sympathised with their fellow inmates but couldn’t understand why anyone would take drugs. Ironically they felt no guilt supplying them – “What other option did we have to get our kids into school?”

Now those children have neither mothers nor (probably) an education. And yet, the fighting spirit of the Jamaicans was undimmed. The defeated demeanour of the Scotswomen beside them was shocking. Only the stoniest heart could visit this epicentre of self-harm and not feel compassion.

But if demolition is recommended tomorrow and accepted by the Scottish Government, compassion alone will not be enough to break the vicious cycle at work in Cornton Vale.

Demolishing this failed, remote and squalid prison is not just an act of compassion – it is an act of social, financial and democratic self-interest too. The sooner prisons policy is driven by fact-based analysis of costs, success and context the better.

So a few questions.

If we acknowledge that home, not prison, is the most threatening, stressful, hopeless and chaotic environment for most petty offenders – can jail-based rehabilitation alone change behaviour?

If preventative drug, employment and education services are needed in the community, where will the money come from when funding still pours into punitive bricks and mortar?

One of the most successful “diversion” projects is the 218 Centre in Glasgow. The health minister who first funded it, Labour’s Dr Richard Simpson, believes this centre succeeds by creating human capital. This “time out” centre takes 500 women out of the prison cycle every year and offers time and structure in a new life away from home. During stays of three to six months women develop healthier habits and new friendships.

During a Commission visit there in 2008 we met one woman whose criminal record illustrated the possibilities and problems associated with current sentencing policy.

She had been served with a (non-criminal) Asbo after playing loud music at night. She breached its conditions (breaches are criminal offences) and after failing to turn up in court twice was also charged with contempt. Her chaotic, drug-fuelled existence meant imprisonment looked inevitable – until the stipendiary magistrate opted to give her a second chance. This life-changing stay at 218 was possible because he knew and rated the centre – and they had a vacancy.

In the absence of either, she would probably have been remanded to jail – for fear she might not come back for sentencing once background social reports were completed.

In Scotland chaos begets criminality – and vice versa. This symbiotic relationship must be broken. Demolishing Cornton Vale is a start. Demolishing Community Justice Authorities would be a good second move.

Eight CJAs were set up in 2006 to “monitor, report and distribute funding for community-based criminal justice services” in wards of multiple deprivation whose populations disproportionately feed our jails. They have failed miserably. Ditto most local authorities who know there is no point providing services for people dismissed as semi-feral by the classes who actually vote.

If the Angiolini report recommends the abolition of CJAs, the removal of local authority control and their replacement with a single strategic national justice agency – like the highly successful Irish system – I will be singing hallelujah. If local justice centres are modelled on the pioneering Sheriff and Community Service Team in Falkirk, I’ll be chuffed.

If the end of Cornton Vale heralds the start of an open, constructive and unhysterical public debate about Scotland’s prisons policy, I’ll be witnessing the triumph of common sense over sentiment.

The annual cost of a place in prison is £32,000 and the reoffending rate is 70 per cent. The annual cost of a diversion scheme is nearer £100,000 but the re-offending rate is around 14 per cent.

Amidst the harsh judgment and well-meaning compassion that will soon surround the Angiolini Report – the hard facts are worth remembering.