We need change not more prisons

Kaitlin Dryburgh

When Labour announced that they’re going to pledge 14,000 new prison places I groaned in despair. Yet I was not in the least bit surprised. After all the tough on crime and punishment nonsense has been working well for them.

Firstly new prison places is a bandage on a broken leg approach, pointless and we know better than that. Why are we wasting money putting more people in places that don’t work? Why are we not trying to improve the system? This isn’t a money issue; this is an infrastructure issue.

Secondly, I assume Keir meant adult prisons because I don’t see anyone acknowledging the existence of youth prisons (technically called Youth Offenders Institutes but they’re worse than adult prisons so why bother). I don’t think either the UK prison minister nor the Scottish one has set foot in a Youth Prison.

Unlike adult estates what goes on in youth prisons is much less known. You can’t name most of the people there, privacy is prioritised more than an adult prison, after all they are just kids. But this has negative effects. The capacity of a child to make known what is really happening is lesser, will they even be listened to, would they have the confidence? All in all they sit out of the spotlight. Politicians don’t mention them during election campaigns, they barely mention them when elected.

How much do they cost? Well to house someone for a year can cost up to £250,000.

A quarter of a million pounds. Per person.

So as I said this is not a money problem. We’re spending plenty of money. So what do we get for that quarter of a million? A child that has worse mental health, a lack of education, no learnt life skills, poor health, poor relationship skills, further anger issues, a further exposure to violence, probably been assaulted, probably assaulted someone, probably bullied or probably bullied to get by. Overall worse than when they went inside, and if you’re lucky just not any better. I promise you it is the biggest waste of time and money in Scotland and the UK. It makes the ferry scandal look like a sound business decision.

You would get better return for your money and make more of a positive influence if you bought an actual house for that person, or you pay their shopping bill for the next 17 years of their life or pay for therapy or counselling for several years. But they get counselling in prison, you might be thinking. No, nothing that would ever make a difference, not to the standards we would ever accept outside in the community, not enough, and NOT a quarter of million pounds worth.

Honestly, buying them a dog would be better, just about anything would be better than spending a quarter of a million to house them in one of these institutes.

Yes some young people are a danger and need to be off the streets, but make no mistake when returning they’ll be just as dangerous. Arguing that these prisons stand as a symbol of justice and punishment is just a farce. If it’s punishment and justice you seek don’t expect to find it there. You’ll waste your tax money and make your community worse of for it, ruin lives and continue the cycle.

It’s no surprise that prison office assaults occur at a higher rate at Youth Prisons, it’s more dangerous to work there, it’s more dangerous to be in there. It’s not unusual for ex-prisoners who have frequented both youth and adult prisons to describe youth institute as more degrading, and mentally challenging than their adult counterpart. Yet we don’t talk about them.

They’re basically the last stop. We have failed them at every single step before this but maybe just maybe we could set them onto a better path, teach them skills they didn’t have before but we still aren’t talking about them. Even if you don’t even care about the kids inside (you should re-evaluate that stance) surely you want your money better spent currently and stop draining services in the future.

However, going several steps back before anyone ends up in one of these hellholes we have community outreach initiatives. These also act as a safety net of some sort since social services, education etc would have been the first point of call. Unfortunately budgets have been squeezed so much social services don’t have much capacity, and schools haven’t received any extra help.

Youth violence is creeping up. Recently there’s been some awful stories in the news of children as young as 12 and 13 brandishing weapons and killing their peers. These are extreme cases but not to be ignored. In East Kilbride a group of parents have banded together to bring awareness of the unacceptable levels of violence in young people. A lot of this is happening in and around school, with violence directed towards teachers also on the rise. Social media has been a catalyst, online clicks for violence has seemingly soared.

Glasgow’s successful violence reduction unit was lauded around the world as it succeeded in dramatically reducing violence in a city once known as “Europe’s Murder Capital”. But they’ve been warning policy makers that, unless the crackdown on safe spaces for young people stops, violence will increase. Local budgets are grappling with big funding gaps and spaces, youth projects, groups and all sorts are reluctantly closing. Fuse. a youth group that operates in the Shettleston area of Glasgow, has long been asking for more funding to offer further services and sustain their current ones. They’ve also called for more resources in all communities. They can’t see why policymakers don’t value the work they do. They operate very close to the area where a 16-year-old boy was recently killed, where services are decimated. There are too many areas where there is just nothing for young people.

I know just about every area of our society needs more money, there’s not really any service that has too much or even just enough funding. But where is the foresight in cutting youth services? We’re unwilling to invest in the initiatives and services that ACTUALLY work, that save children, give them a space and for the right people to step in before it gets out of hand. Yet we’re more than happy to spend around £250,000 on something that doesn’t work. The short-sightedness pains me.

So for the people in the cheap seats, this isn’t a money problem. This is a system problem, an ideological hindrance centred around revenge, an infrastructure that’s not built to help anyone. Except maybe a few private contractors.

What I would have loved to see in this election is big thinking, an actual shake-up. Prisons don’t need new places; the prison system needs change. Even the NHS, yes more doctors and nurses would be great, but we need an NHS that works better and attracts potential employees organically. Housing, yes more social housing is needed, but the housing market is broken, go fix it!

I hope I live to see the day that we look back on the current youth prisons as we do Victorian work houses.

5 thoughts on “We need change not more prisons”

  1. If we genuinely want an early intervention approach to identifying and addressing the needs of those young people who regularly use violence against others we need a complete reversal of current policy which seeks to avoid criminalising young people for their criminal behaviour – something that sounds a worthwhile goal but actually works against them getting the help they need to address their offending behaviour. The reality is that the Children’s Hearings system is not working as it should because young people displaying violent and criminal behaviour usually do not get referred to a Panel unless they are either at serious risk or are offending in the community – by not being charged for various criminal acts, many young people do not get referred who should be, meaning that they do not get the interventions they need at a young age. By the time young people end up sentenced to custody, they have usually been involved in violent or criminal behaviour over several years – but often not addressed.

  2. Whatever happened to the Violence Reduction Unit? I’m retired now but I remember sitting through riveting presentations on the work they were doing. The importance of a systematic approach that encompassed education at all levels, housing, and community development, as well as social work, couldn’t be stressed enough. What happened to child protection policies that stated it was everyone’s job to make sure a child grew up safe and well? These were approaches that worked well and were a sound investment in the future. It is desperately sad that we are sacrificing young people whilst maintaining costly, punitive and inhumane institutions.
    This was such a thoughtful article – but the tragedy is that it could have been written decades ago, or even centuries ago. We must start learning from and building on our successes.

  3. The Care and Justice Bill (https://www.parliament.scot/bills-and-laws/bills/children-care-and-justice-scotland-bill) means that no child in Scotland should in prison. What is not entirely clear yet is how funding will move from the prison to the children’s hearings and social work systems and who will do the work supporting young people, their families and wider communities given the recruitment and retention crisis in social work. You’re completely right about the impact of austerity and cuts having real impact. Families need support at an early stage. All for having a pop at our politicians but Angela Constance was a social worker based in prisons so she certainly knows this stuff. Some things are potentially going in the right direction (for example, UNCRC, The Promise, getting social services into prisons) but without resource, intention is meaningless.

  4. Spare a thought for those who live in communities where regular offenders are given community sentences and we have to endure their reign of terror while powerless police look on. Rehouse them in Hyndland or the New Town and see then what you think of reducing prison places.

    1. Kaitlin Dryburgh

      Thanks for your comment Geoff. You’re correct, for those living in those communities trying to go about their lives and having to put up with all kinds of disturbances isn’t fair at all. However, this is what I’m trying to say. We’re paying millions upon millions of pounds for individuals to go through a justice system that doesn’t help or reform anyone, the communities you reference are victims of the system. Community sentences included, reform is not the priority. The whole thing needs to change.
      I’m not advocating for reducing prison places in isolation, although I don’t want any additional places. I’m asking for more effective prisons, with actual reform at the heart of them. If that was to happen prison places would reduce organically and those residents you speak of won’t have to endure the circle of re-offending.

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