This week a rather disturbing news story came to light. A 21 year old male has been found guilty of raping a 13 year old girl when he was 17. An awful thing to have happened, one of the most sickening crimes. Perhaps though one of the most shocking aspects of the case was that the male didn’t receive a custodial sentence for his actions. He avoided prison and was instead given 270 hours of community service and a spot on the sex offenders register for a couple of years. For many working within the Scottish justice system this was the first time they had encountered a crime so abhorrent not to be sentenced with a prison term. For organisations such as Rape Crisis Scotland there was a strong condemnation as what they viewed as an unduly lenient sentence. One that they believed doesn’t provide justice for the victim, especially considering the fact they will live with the trauma for perhaps the rest of their life. The organisation as well as many others believes that this lack of custodial sentence doesn’t encourage other victims to come forward and report such incedents. Overall it could send the completely wrong message to both victims and abusers.
It should also be noted that this case took four years to be heard in court, although there would have been delays due to Covid this is absolutely not acceptable. Showing little regard for the wellbeing of the victim and the holes in our justice system.
The judge as at any sentencing hearing provided his reasoning as to why he had chosen to handout community service. It mostly came down to the fairly new law which means under 25s are subject to an assumption of more “blamelessness” than had they been older. Not to mention a primary focus on rehabilitation. The judge therefore believed that the perpetrator in question would be more likely to be rehabilitated if they didn’t go to prison. Prison, in the judges’ eyes wouldn’t give him the chance to be rehabilitated. Now it could be easily argued that although we should always be looking to rehabilitate every person found guilty in our justice system so in the end they can re-enter society a better person ready to contribute as a citizen, there must be a sense of justice for the victim. Picking litter or scrubbing off graffiti doesn’t exactly scream justice.
The balance between rehabilitation and justice is definitely an ongoing wrangle in both the court of public opinion and in parliament. Yet the thing that stuck out for me is the fact that the judge obviously had little confidence in the prisons’ ability to aide rehabilitation. Which throws into question why is anyone being sent there if rehabilitation is not achievable inside? Of course we have the question of justice and public safety, yet it does seem strange that we continue to maintain the same strategy towards Scotland’s prisons if even some judges have little confidence in them.
Although this story may lead some to believe that Scotland may have gone soft or has turned it’s back on prisons, don’t be fooled. We still have one of the highest prison populations per head in Western Europe (especially among women), our rate of imprisonment is higher than that of the rest of UK and doesn’t seem to be budging all that much.
The problems facing Scottish prisons are no secret. We currently have an arsenal of Victorian prisons, buildings that are no longer fit for purpose and need to change to be in line with what we now know about rehabilitation. Funnily enough knowledge has moved on since the 1880’s so our buildings need to adapt with this, we have an aging prison population, we appreciate the importance of physical and mental health provision and we now focus on rehabilitation. Although it can be argued that our current approach to rehabilitation doesn’t go far enough, the investment needed to produce results and cut re-offending rates is currently not being met. In order to stop the revolving door of institutionalized prisoners which we currently experience we need change, and quickly.
Just about every public service right now is plagued with underfunding, staffing issues and bureaucratic messes that make efficient management impossible, prisons are no different and this continues to make it harder to deliver proper rehabilitation for prisoners.
One of the most disturbing problems facing Scottish prisons currently is the record number of people dying, over the past three years the numbers have never been higher. Be that from suicide or drug deaths, the numbers have continued to rise and are considerably higher than the rates in England. Although there were unfortunately deaths due to Covid other causes of deaths that were outside illness continued to rise. The hard truth is someone who is sent to jail today is twice more likely to die in prison than someone in 2008. That is simply not good enough, we don’t have the death penalty in Scotland and prison shouldn’t be a substitute for it.
Trying to keep drugs out of prisons can be a cat and mouse game for prison guards, who have to stay on top of new techniques. Unfortunately, Scotland is experiencing a worrying rise in the use of drones being used to transport drugs into prisons, as well as other paraphernalia such as mobile phones. The Scottish Prison Service (SPS) released figures that shows an increasing trend in the use of drones. The unfortunate thing is they will always be a few steps behind without the proper funding to get a head of the game. Between August 2021 and July 2022 the SPS recorded 9000 instances where mail tested positive for an illegal drug. This has resulted in many prisons preferring to photocopy mail for prisoners, however some have struggled to keep up with this as funding doesn’t always stretch to a new photocopier.
In one of the most recent prison inspectors annual report it was noted that there are still ongoing issues with the effects of Covid, the most important being the decline in prisoners partaking in work, study or skills work. Between 2021-22 the numbers were close to half of what they were in 2019-2020 in some instances. The importance of work and study influencing re-offending rates cannot be understated, meaningful work that incorporates transferable skills that can be applied to prisoner’s life upon release. Rehabilitation in prisons will never be effected if prisoners cannot access work or study. Some of the most successful prison services in the world (you wont be surprised to know they are Scandinavian) place so much emphasis on this due to the fact it mimics outside life, by bringing reality into prison this allows for much lower reoffending rates as prisoners find it easier to integrate back into society upon release.
Thankfully Scotland is moving away from the privatisation of prisons with several soon to move back into public ownership. This is good news as over a decade ago Scotland was barrelling towards having one of the most privatised prison sectors in the world. Yet in some respects there still haven’t been lessons learnt. In the most recent Prison Inspectors annual report it was noted that the poorest overall service performance came from GEOamey, the private security firm in charge of prisoner escort. The report noted, lack of staff training, poor management and major issues with staff shortages resulting in prisoners missing out on doctors’ appointments etc. The contract worth £238 million still underperforms and fails to meet the service standards they are excepted to meet. Unfortunately this is an example of a private company entrusted to provide a public service which time after time doesn’t meet standards and there seems to be little consequence for them doing so.
At the core it seems our approach to prisons is fundamentally misguided and not fit for purpose anymore. Punishment for the sake of punishment is not useful, however that being said some crimes need to demonstrate justice for the victim and a sense of punishment is usually part of that. But rehabilitation is key to everything and if we no longer believe our current prisons deliver this, it’s time for a re-think.