Scotland's Victorian prisons need to be replaced. But can we build a better system? – Karyn McCluskey

It’s that time of year, budgets are being set, and we’re deciding how to spend public money to improve the lot of the nation and meet its needs.

Victorian prisons like HMP Barlinnie in Glasgow have lasted so long because they were well built. Replacing them is a chance to do things differently (Picture: Danny Lawson/PA)
Victorian prisons like HMP Barlinnie in Glasgow have lasted so long because they were well built. Replacing them is a chance to do things differently (Picture: Danny Lawson/PA)

Capital spending involves improving roads, building healthcare facilities, schools and local amenities across Scotland.

Most projects will be warmly welcomed, new schools are unlikely to get many detractors. When they’re built we’ll use them for decades, maybe a hundred years, so when we soul-search about whether it’s the right thing to spend money on, it’s about longevity and fitness for purpose in the longer term.

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What about prisons? The reason we’re still using many of our prisons is because the Victorians built them so well. Barlinnie (1882) is still very much in use but not fit for purpose, it’s old and needs change.

It’s held as many as 1,500 individuals and in Scotland we imprison more people per capita than any other country in Western Europe. It is shameful. Scotland is planning to replace some of these prisons but what with and how many?

One of the founders of modern management Peter Drucker said: “If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old.”

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We know so much more about offending and rehabilitation than we did in 1882. We know those addicted to drugs need treatment, not punishment, to reduce offending and change their lives. Should we build more recovery facilities like Portugal which has embraced a public-health approach to addiction and reduced the prison population as a result?

We know there are a number of different populations in prisons who require different interventions and management to rehabilitate and keep us safe. There is an old and unwell population who need custody and care; in reality a secure care home is required with nursing support.

We have an increasing lifer population who are often far from the chaotic remand population and need long-term intervention for them to safely return to society. And we have many in custody who have mental illnesses and require treatment and support. Surely, we wouldn’t want to put them all together and build like for like?

We are embarking on building prisons that will change Scotland for the next 100 years and, building future capacity for some children in primary one today, it is less than aspirational. Once we build big prisons, it’s almost impossible to close them. I rather loved the campaign to not build the women’s prison at Inverclyde and instead build small bespoke custody units. A triumph of evidence and common sense.

Many of the Scandinavian countries have operated different models. I visited Denmark where there are small establishments with a mix of staff to cope with the complexity of the population. I visited one where a large proportion were sex offenders, with a highly specialised staff, high security but a focus on rehabilitation and careful risk assessment.

We are a brilliant but strange and contrary country where we hold retribution as casually as we hold redemption. Some form of custody will, most likely, always be needed, but let's make it necessary for only the right reasons and in the right ethos. We should direct our attention (and spending) to where it can deliver the maximum value and 'bang for buck': in the community.

Karyn McCluskey is chief executive of Community Justice Scotland

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