Chris Marshall: Scotland can’t afford to rest on its laurels over prisons

Scotland's outgoing chief inspector of prisons, David Strang, says we should be 'proud' of how are prisons are run. Picture: PA
Scotland's outgoing chief inspector of prisons, David Strang, says we should be 'proud' of how are prisons are run. Picture: PA
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When inspectors visited HMP Bedford earlier this month they found a prison where inmates have effectively taken control, where both drugs and violence are rife and where rats have infested the squalor.

It led HM Inspectorate of Prisons for England and Wales to call for an urgent intervention from the justice secretary.

But despite the seriousness of the situation, Bedford is by no means an outlier. The publicly run prison is the fourth English jail to be subject to the “urgent notification” process.

It was Fyodor Dostoevsky, the author of Crime and Punishment, who said a society’s civility could be judged by the way it treats its prisoners.

The truth is that the prison system, much of it privately run, has never been a priority for government, with the impact of chronic under-investment now beginning to tell.

Yet the problems in England sit in stark contrast to the situation in Scotland where prisons have not experienced the same levels of violence and unrest.

In a report published today, Scotland’s outgoing chief inspector of prisons, David Strang, says we should be “proud” of how are prisons are run.

In the foreword to his annual report, he states: “We should never take for granted the good order that is maintained in Scotland’s prisons and that they are in generally stable and secure environments.”

Scotland’s prisons are not without their problems: in the past year inspection reports have raised concerns about the state of ageing buildings (many of them built in the 19th century) and the quality of rehabilitation offered behind bars, particularly for those serving shorter sentences.

In March, a report warned the presence of psychoactive substances is undermining the “sense of safety” for inmates and staff after an inspection of HMP Inverness found an influx of “Spice,” which was thought to be arriving in prisoners’ mail.

But as serious as these problems are, they pale into insignificance when compared to the Dickensian conditions being endured in some English jails.

Last week during a debate in the House of Commons, UK justice minister Rory Stewart pledged to “learn lessons” from north of the Border.

Mr Stewart, a thoughtful politician who has promised to resign if he cannot tackle the level of drugs and violence in ten English prisons, knows that the best long-term way of improving the situation is to cut the overall number of those in custody.

Asked about Scottish Government plans to introduce a presumption against sentences of less than 12 months, he told MPs: “Connected to the question of crowding in prisons is the question of how many people are sentenced. The two are clearly related.

“The evidence suggests that very short sentences are in fact likely to lead to more re-offending than a community sentence. It is an issue that we need to look at very carefully.”

But despite generally pursuing a more progressive penal policy over the past decade or so, Scotland’s prison population has remained stubbornly high.

Reducing the number of those behind bars will not be an easy or quick fix.

For the staff and inmates at HMP Bedford and other prisons like it, time is of the essence.