Sandy McCall Smith: Private prisons have no place in a civilized state

Rory Stewart has pledged to resign as Prisons Minister if he does not sort out the problems in England's prisons  Picture: Dan Kitwood/Getty)
Rory Stewart has pledged to resign as Prisons Minister if he does not sort out the problems in England's prisons Picture: Dan Kitwood/Getty)
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There is a reason why conditions in Scottish jails are better and violence is less common than in English ones, writes Sandy McCall Smith.

W.H. Auden liked pithy observations. One of his best occurs in a short but rather beautiful poem on woods, in which he writes: “The trees encountered on a country stroll,/ Reveal a lot about a country’s soul./ A small grove massacred to the last ash,/ An oak with heart-rot give away the show/ This great society is going smash ...”

The idea is an intriguing one: certain features of any society tell you what’s going on. Good drains and functioning aqueducts must have reassured the Romans that things were fundamentally right with their empire, and that any thoughts of decline and fall were premature. Putting a man on the moon – which Auden, incidentally described as “so huge a phallic triumph, an adventure it would not have occurred to women to think worthwhile” – similarly speaks to the optimism and confidence of America at the height of her power. So, how well key things are looked after or how well things can be done might speak a great deal about the state of a civilization and its prospects.

Which is why Auden might have shaken his head at the photograph of Rory Stewart, the English prisons minister, posed outside a prison last week, looking grim. Stewart is a remarkable man who is something of a modern Lawrence of Arabia. He has crammed into his 40-something years more than one might imagine possible in a world in which opportunities to run provinces in foreign countries (he governed a province in Afghanistan) are shrinking. He speaks difficult languages, has walked between Harat and Kabul, and been elected to Westminster. His Scottish father’s example undoubtedly encouraged him in all of this – he was, after all none other than the real Q, the man whose fictional equivalent equipped James Bond with all his technical bits and pieces. Q’s son has now taken on the English prison service and promised that if he fails to sort it out within a year he will resign.

READ MORE: Self-harming in Scotland’s prisons ‘almost doubled in four years’

He has a tendency to look a bit worried, as if he has recently swallowed a bee. It is actually quite a becoming look. In this case, though, his expression of foreboding draws our attention to the prison in the photograph and to the fact that if we are looking for a symbol of the health of a society, then the state of prisons sends us a powerful message.

Stewart is a talented and capable man with a horrible job. English prisons are over-crowded and under-funded. Over the last few days, the crisis in one of them – a privately run prison, HMP Birmingham – has resulted in an emergency take-over by the Government. Cells in that prison were apparently infested with rats and cockroaches, the floors spattered with blood and vomit left uncleaned, and a pall of drug miasma made the prison inspectors feel ill. In the car park, cars were torched.

Conditions in Scottish prisons are considerably better.

The Scottish Government may have attracted criticism for its handling of other matters, but its policy on prisons has been consistent and coherent. And the policy seems to be working: Holyrood figures released late last year show that there were 73 per cent fewer outbreaks of violence in Scottish jails than in prisons in England and Wales in 2016. Meanwhile, policies pushing prison alternatives led to an 18 per cent rise in community sentences. Short sentences – generally regarded as being counter-productive – are discouraged.

There has been some privatisation – roughly the same proportion of Scotland’s prisons are privately run as those in England and Wales – but the SNP has repeatedly come out against further privatisation of prisons, and clearly sees the issue as a state concern.

READ MORE: Should the rest of the UK follow Scotland’s lead on prisons?

And that, perhaps, is the most important thing of all. In Scotland, the Government is not washing its hands of something that should, as a matter of principle, be the responsibility of the state. Imprisonment, by its very nature, involves deprivation of liberty. That is such a solemn and significant thing that it should only be done by the state. We turned our backs on private justice centuries ago: it has no place in a civilized society.

Let’s not lose our nerve. Let’s continue to profess that in a decent society, there are some core things that should be done collectively, by public servants who act in the name of the state and owe no loyalty to private companies. Let’s give them long-term jobs and honour their commitment. Don’t try to sort out your private prisons, Mr Stewart – abolish them.