They say you can tell a great deal about a nation by the way it treats its prisoners. Last week I attended the launch of Her Majesty’s Inspector of Prisons annual report and the 2005-06 version makes grim reading. In that same week my SSP colleague, Rosie Kane MSP, spent a week in Cornton Vale for protesting against nuclear weapons - her first hand report of life inside Scotland's only women's prison - again grim reading can be found here http://www.sundaymail.co.uk/opinion/columnists/rosiekane/
The frustrations of Dr Andrew McLellan, the current Inspector, are plain for all to see. He told me he is ‘completely scunnered’ by the numbers we send to jail and that the average daily prison population in Scotland continues year on year to pass record levels.
Some 6,779 men and women are incarcerated here, meaning we jail a higher proportion of prisoners than almost anywhere else in Europe. Scotland jails 141people per 100,000 population, in Sweden it is 78 and Norway just 68. And that figure will worsen dramatically with the introduction of the Custodial Sentences and Weapons Bill which plans to scrap the automatic early release of prisoners, insisting that all offenders serve at least 75% of their sentence in jail. It is likely to add another 20% to that daily total.
And with 6396 prison places, some 400 less than the numbers jailed, the Inspector of Prisons has condemned the chronic overcrowding.
‘The nine evils of over-crowding’ as HMIP Dr McLellan calls them, mean; less time for staff to devote to prisoners offending behaviour, less time for screening for self harm or suicide risk assessments, increased availability of drugs as there’s less time for searches, cell sharing of facilities – facilities designed for one will have to accommodate two and those for two will have to contain three- and the deterioration of living conditions, increased tensions and noise, more time overall spent in cells, family contact visits will come round that bit less often.
It is hardly any wonder that re-offending is increasing and that people feel that offenders often come out of prison worse than they went in.
And as to who it is we are locking up?
Professor Roger Houchin, a criminologist at Glasgow Caledonian University, highlighted the link between poverty and imprisonment. He revealled that one quarter of our prisoners come from the 55 most deprived/poorest Council wards in Scotland. In parts of Glasgow, for example, the poorest parts, one 23 year old man in every nine is in prison.
Echoing the remarks of Lord Scarman in the aftermath of the 1980’s riots across the UK, Houchin rightly says ‘There can be no criminal justice without social justice.’
When I spoke with Andrew McLellan I asked him about the ‘social justice’ in two particular aspects of his report. One was the food we provide to prisoners and the other health care.
Food in prison.
I was shocked to find how much the Scottish Executive provides to feed people in prison. How much do you think we spend per day on feeding prisoners - breakfast, dinner, tea and supper –all in? Have a guess, ten pounds? Five pounds £5?
Unbelievably the answer is just £1.57! That’s right, not even the price of a happy meal! £1.57! The same as it was ten years ago. And I think we can all imagine how good it can only be. It is often not even warm.
The other aspect of the report I found surprising was that the health of our prisoners is not the responsibility of the NHS. I was surprised to find that the Scottish Prisons Service has a separate health department. Given the exceptional demands placed on the SPS by a population which is 70% drug dependent and often with severe mental health problems there is now growing concern that the one organisation which is best placed and has more expertise than any other, the NHS, should be dealing with those issues.
Yes you can indeed tell a great deal about a country by how it treats its prisoners and Scotland has as Dr McLellan’s report repeatedly highlights much to be concerned about.