Why jailing is failing in Scotland

Many years ago, my mum was in and out of prison frequently. She used to volunteer for a charity and visited inmates whose nearest and dearest didn’t come to see them. Once she was visiting a young man in jail in Perth. He was due for release and told her he was worried about finding a job. So she asked what skills he had, and he explained that he had worked in a garage in Glasgow spraying cars.

‘That’s great,’ she said. ‘At least you’ve got a trade to fall back on when you get out.’ ‘No,’ he replied, ‘That’s what I’m in for.’

The story highlights the gap between the well-meaning and the street-wise, and my mum enjoyed the joke herself. But, like a Polaroid snap of a yeti, the sudden flash of comedy also captures something you rarely see in the British public’s discourse on prison life: the real, all-too-human individual caught in our penal system.

Even in civilised Scotland, we rarely glimpse that person behind the fog of baffling statistics, political grandstanding and sensationalist reporting. Indeed, ever since Norman Stanley Fletcher was finally set free from Porridge with Ronnie Barker’s passing, both humour and humanity have surely been lacking in the national mood on prison policy.

You only need to look at reactions to the new 500 bed ‘super-prison’ in Grampian to see the strange ways we think about justice in our society. We welcome the £140 million infrastructure investment which will create construction jobs and ongoing local employment. We pity the prisoners but complain that the new facilities will be like a 5-star hotel from which no criminal would wish to escape.

At least that’s how Aberdeenshire councillor Albert Howie framed the debate last week, as reported in all seriousness by a Scottish redtop. Whether it’s hypocrisy, doublethink or just fair dancin’ mad in the Doric, he backs the building of a modern jail but wants bars on the windows – in case inmates become confused and think they have been sent to Gleneagles by mistake.

Smugly, the rest of us think we know what we want from our justice system. We want ‘justice’ – and our minds are as closed as a cell door at Shotts.

Certainly, we like criminals to ‘pay their debt to society’. The bitter joke is that society still picks up the bill. The Scottish Prison Service costs us £350 million a year; nearly £40,000 per prisoner on an annual basis; over £100 per person per night – a price not too different from a fancy hotel.

Of course, few 5-star establishments offer the overcrowding provided by Her Majesty. Our prison system is designed to cope with an average daily population of about 7,300 prisoners. Even though crimes rates have been falling for years, we now imprison around 8,500 on a daily basis. Since 2005, the length of the average prison sentence has increased by 23%. Barlinnie is currently 50% over-capacity and, by 2020, Scottish government statisticians estimate that our daily prison population will be closer to 10,000.

How do you react to such statistics – other than resenting that a year’s incarceration at one of our ‘universities of crime’ costs more than a four year degree from St Andrews or Edinburgh?

Prison, it seems, brings out the worst in everybody – especially the upright British public and our uptight media. As a result, penal reform is the politicians’ equivalent of rock-breaking. It’s back-breaking, thankless toil on stony ground: a notorious vote loser. So how can we begin to break out of the mental prison we’ve made for ourselves on the subject of crime and punishment?

For a start, we can recognise the many confused ways we think about the role of prison. On the one hand, it’s vengeance we seek: maybe not a hell on earth but no picnic either. We demand punishment for the guilty, and a warning to the morally-weak. Yet, we still expect the wretches to be redeemed. We want repentance. We hope for rehabilitation, and a change of heart, and atonement. And we wish for the unschooled to learn the 4 Rs of reading, writing, ‘rithmetic and responsibility.

But, mostly maybe, we want protection. We just want dangerous people to be locked up and kept away from us.

It’s tempting, therefore, to think of prisons as human landfill – secure sites where hazardous trash can be secreted till it becomes safe, if ever. Certainly, there are people who are serious threats to safety, and need to be dealt with swiftly and firmly. But, perhaps contrary to the impression given by media reporting, violent offences account for only 4% of crimes in Scotland. Those convicted get longer sentences, so ‘dangerous crims’ make up about one third of our prison population.

The rest of the cells can’t be filled by the ‘junkies’ of popular imagination though: international research suggests that only 14.4% of Scotland’s prisoners are drug users.

In some ways, it’s quite reassuring to realise that Scottish society is, at its lowest, just a bit dodgy. Almost half of offences are ‘crimes of dishonesty’. Along with prostitutes and drug-dealers, the habitual re-offenders who clog up our courts are shoplifters and sneak-thieves.

The McLeish Report in 2008 observed that nearly half of our convicts have been to jail three times or more. One in six jailbirds have been inside 10 times or more. So it’s not hard to see how Scotland’s bill for Legal Aid in criminal cases exceeded £104 million last year. Some people get Life in thin slices from our criminal justice industry: others get a living in great dollops.

The international evidence suggests that prison populations grow on socio-economic inequality too. But culture matters more. Per 100,000 population, Japan locks up about 50 people. By contrast, the USA is off-the-scale, putting away more than 750 per 100,000 Americans. Aggressive capitalism, Old Testament-style vengeance and racism combine to put more black men behind bars now than were slaves in the old South.

In Scotland, we imprison about 150 people per 100,000 population. That’s about the same as England but more than most European countries and twice as many as Scandinavia or Northern Ireland.

Yet prison is only a small part of the story – 13% to be precise. The majority of people convicted in Scottish courts face a financial penalty. In 2009/2010, over 70,000 fines were handed down, averaging £217. Another 16,000 convicts received a community sentence. A similar number were admonished. The remaining 15,500 – 13% of convictions – were jailed for an average of 9 months, the longest sentences in a decade.

For sure, you can understand our judges’ frustration. When other forms of sentencing fail, we send people to jail. But when prison doesn’t ‘work’, we send people back to prison, for more prison.

So here’s the key. We know we need to lock up dangerously damaged individuals. But, for many ‘troubled and troublesome’ souls, we also know prison is not the answer. Not even a five-star super-prison. Community reparation reduces re-offending much more than jail time. And it’s so much cheaper.

But that’s still not the complete, honest response required. As my mum would have recognised, our justice system doesn’t simply need a re-spray. Our society needs a total re-think. We need to challenge our basic mindset about the meaning of a ‘just’ society. Currently, when the ‘haves’ attempt to make off with £1 million in public money from a bank, we call it a bonus. When the young, dim, dispossessed, disgruntled or mentally-ill try the same trick on a smaller scale in a shop, we call it a crime.

In the current economic crisis, people don’t just need diversion from illegal activities and ‘doing time’. Especially for the young, a new Scotland must help people find purposeful, rewarding ways to live their lives – or we’ll all pay the penalty.


A version of this article recently appeared in Scotland’s national newspaper The Scotsman