Scotland’s prisons are at tipping point. They’re being pushed to limit that is unsafe and adding to the spiral of re-offending. Things are set to become so bad that the head of the Scottish Prison Service, Teresa Medhurst, has signalled that if the prison population is to continue on its current projection they would have to deploy drastic measures. This would not mean a mass release of prisoners as some newspapers have warned, but it could mean some sentences would be cut short. Yet Medhurst has stated that “anything is on the table”. Either way the 8000 and rising prison (it could hit around 8700 this year) population is unsustainable.
But why care? Why care about prisons, and why should this be a concern for us? Well we should judge a nation by the way in which it cares for it’s worst off, it’s most in need, the down trodden and helpless. Really these are the individuals that fill our prisons. Although there are many who would like to lock people up and not think about them again, prisons are shaping up to be more like mental health institutions than rehabilitators. Around 90% of prisoners have some variation of mental health problem that needs to be addressed, some so severe they should be hospitalised. For civilians, gaining appropriate mental health care can be difficult, countless news stories of waiting lists and sub-adequate care are testament to that. Even though the NHS is responsible for healthcare within prisons and prisoners should be afforded the same care as people out in communities, this is certainly not the case. Waiting lists in some prisons can reach between seven to nine months to see a councillor or psychiatrist. There is too much of an emphasis on targets surrounding mental health assessments, and what we’ve ended up with is endless assessments but less of a pressure to then follow through and provide care. It’s a perfect mix of mental health illnesses being over represented and under-staffing.
The outcomes of this make for sad reading. Self-harm instances have increased 40% in the last year, rising from 587 to 818. Over the past three years every single Scottish prison has had a suicide, which is unusual, while suicide rates in Scotland remain higher than England and Wales. Even after the Scottish Prison Service implemented their Talk to Me mental health service suicide numbers on the whole increased. For those who are experiencing a mental health crisis or those who are sharing a room with an individual who is, the impact of that is anything but rehabilitating. Staff also receive very little training to guide someone through this.
This astronomically high prison population also means Scotland still retains the highest in Western Europe spot. An embarrassment, after last year’s debate on how to reduce the population especially those on remand, nothing has been seriously addressed. Last week I wrote about Scotland’s anti-violence reduction unit that successfully turned Glasgow from the murder capital of Europe to a shining beacon of treating violence as a public health issue. Even though we need to safeguard this programme by making it fit for modern days it is still used as an example for many other countries. Yet how can our prison population be an example of how not to do it. The two really shouldn’t make sense.
So why invest in prisons? Apart from being the right thing to do. Well it would better serve the interest of victims for a start. Victims interests are not recognised in the current situation. Quite often victims will state “they don’t want anyone else to go through what they went through”. They expect the convicted to go to prison and come out a safer individual who won’t repeat what’s happened to them. Unfortunately, this will never happen every time, even in a much improved prison estate, but re-offending rates could be greatly decreased. Overcrowding, not enough access to effective rehabilitation and substance abuse services, coupled with mental health issues growing out of control means Scotland is also doing a disservice to victims of crime.
Creating better prisons which integrate a future national care service and better rehabilitation outcomes would benefit the wider public, making their communities safer. In the long-run this would save money for the government. If we look at countries such as Norway which operate the ‘gold standard’ of prisons, they spend just under three times more on prisoners than we do (approximately £37,000 compared to £90,000). Yet even though both Scotland and Norway share an overall population size that is staggeringly similar, their prison population is almost two thirds smaller (8200 compared to approximately 3000). They cut their re-offending rates and now have one of the lowest in Europe. For countries such as Norway they always carry the aim of turning a prisoner into a good neighbour. That means they cost less in the future. They’ll hopefully become a more functioning member of their community, they’ll contribute to society and won’t commit crime. And crime costs a lot, damage, police resources, court and legal expenses and then the cost of keeping someone in prison. The initial investment to cut reoffending could curb these costs in the future.
Apart from increasing spending there are other ways in which we can aide this. Meaningful work experience and proper healthcare, further recruitment and rethinking the training that our prison officers receive. Reenvisaging the role of the prison officer so they are equipped to actually deal with the problems they come up against, especially when considering the youth estates, where there is a higher degree of care involved. Not only would this aide in rehabilitation it could create a better working environment for officers and address the high turnover of staff.
Yet there’s no shying away from the fact that our prison population is increasing at a time when the cost of living is so high. We have almost a quarter of Scottish children growing up in poverty, multiple cities declaring housing emergencies, social care being stripped back to the bare bones and our overall health declining, especially in the most deprived areas. None of this is a coincidence. As it stands now, when someone reaches prison, it’s too late. Our prisons are currently not equipped to reverse any of the damage that has already occurred. So something has to give, because our prison walls can no longer contain our failures to care for the worst off.