Young man in prison

Prisons – Where is the Change?

Kaitlin Dryburgh

A new approach for Scottish prisons. A chance for both short and long-term prisoners who are nearing the end of their sentence to gain some independence, re-acquaint themselves with life skills previously forgotten in, some long-awaited dignity applied to the living standards of those in prison. I’m referring to the new women’s units located in Glasgow and Dundee which signalled a move towards a more Scandinavian approach. An approach that has brought about lower conviction rates, better rehabilitation for prisoners and doesn’t allow for mental health issues to fester like they do in our prisons. A step in the right direction. Except a few months ago the Guardian reported that both of these units lay almost empty. At the time of print neither the Bella Centre in Dundee and the Lilias Centre in Glasgow had ever topped 54% capacity and six months on from opening capacity for both had slumped around 35%. That said the centres being built in the first place is a commendable. The follow-through to fill the units has been hampered by the Scottish Government themselves. After building the units they set near impossible requirements to be placed there. Labour MSP Katy Clark asked for an explanation considering the centres took a lot of money and time to construct.

But the centres are a symbol of the Scottish Government’s approach to prisons and Scotland’s use of custody in general. Talk of change, a half attempt but not a commitment to change our aging prison buildings and archaic approach to custodial implementation. There has been a plethora of evidence over the past several decades that pointed to small and big changes needed in prisons, experts in the field have long told the government we need change, yet nothing has come to fruition. It doesn’t inspire much confidence that centres like the Bella and Lilias will be the new norm.

Long have the government known that the prison estate needs reform. We know we have too high a prison population and have done for some time, yet no major reform. We build bigger prisons and fill them to the brim, we replace prisons with promises not to overcrowd them yet the numbers start to creep up. Although the recent figures show that we aren’t sitting at our highest ever population, there was still an increase of 2% from the previous year, bringing the grand total to 7,504. What did the Scottish Government have to say about this?

“This is only a small increase of 2% from the previous year (7,339), which indicates broad stability in average daily population levels across the reporting years.”

Only. This is only a small increase. For over ten years Scotland has had one of the highest prison populations per head in Western Europe, yet we should rejoice in the fact that this year only increased by 2%. Not only that it seems that the stability in population numbers is also an achievement, well it’s not. Funnily enough the biggest spike in the Scottish prison population’s (disregarding Covid’s 2020) coincides with the SNP taking government in 2007. With each year that has passed there has been lots of concern, plenty of “we’ll do better” and reports, yet nothing of note has ever suggested the Scottish Government is serious about bringing down the prison population and exploring different options.

Mental health illnesses run rife within our prisons. A 2022 report by the Mental Welfare Commission found that 76% of the prisoners contacted reported a history of mental health illness but only 60% reported receiving treatment for it. Perhaps more concerning was the fact that when the prison staff were contacted 77% were concerned about the provision of mental health support in prisons.

Unfortunately, the past several months have brought about a spike in custodial deaths, nine deaths in nine weeks. Two of those were individuals on remand, while one had only recently been sentenced. Each death a tragedy and avoidable, these deaths weren’t concentrated in one prison but scattered all over Scotland. We need to seriously deal with the fact that a person imprisoned in 2022 is twice as likely to die in prison than a person in 2008. Although numbers rose during Covid times due to the virus, the numbers of those dying due to suicide and drug overdose also unfortunately rose.

Re-offending rates dance around 24%, however the most recent statistics only cover years 2019-2020. This is stubbornly higher than other western European countries such as France, which has a re-offending rate of 14.6% as of 2021. So not only do we have one of the highest prison populations in Western Europe, Scotland also produces high re-offending rates. That clearly demonstrates that Scottish prisons are not effective.

With the remnants of the Covid pandemic still lingering over the prison estate in Scotland and the rest of the UK some issues have magnified and it’s taking a while to get them back under control. Gang issues have become prominent in a variety of prisons, this was exasperated during the pandemic when prisoners were unable to mix. This has made the task of now starting to mix individuals identify with opposing gangs harder. With limited and often dwindling funding and staffing shortages, resolving these matters become extremely difficult.

The younger we start the better. The first intervention should not be in a prison or a youth offenders institute, it should be way before that. Poor education, and health coupled with a life in poverty help to funnel those to crime and addiction, that’s the first intervention. With an approximate of 24% of Scottish children living in poverty and the likes of the two-child cap still in place it seems that this too is an issue that isn’t being seriously considered. When family units break down that’s when social work comes into play, yet in recent years the social care workforce is increasingly undervalued and under paid as staff turnover increases while the total workforce decreases.

The results of this is are youth offenders with below average reading ages, poor health, a lack of supportive family units and mental health illnesses rearing their head. A study conducted by the University of Glasgow, which included a third of all young males in Scottish youth institutes, found that 80% had shown signs of a significant historical head injury, while many had been exposed to repeated head injuries over time. Researchers found that the magnitude of some of these head injuries can lead to mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression, and poor behaviour control. This research and previous research around this topic gives insight into why people may act the way they do, as it has been found that those who had suffered a significant head injury were three times more likely to commit a violent crime. Most of the head injuries in the Glasgow study were due to assault and violence.

Be that as a young child or a teenager, the majority of children in youth institutions come from a life of violence. We have already failed them. Perhaps they’ll get trapped inside the doom spiral that is our justice and prison systems, destined to go on to a Victorian adult prison which is no longer fit for purpose. Our prisons are not only stuck in the Victorian era physically but also the principles and routine they go by are Dickensian. We desperately need to bring the 21st century to our prisons.

1 thought on “Prisons – Where is the Change?”

  1. What really frustrates me is that everyone says they support early intervention to prevent young people being sucked in to crime but the reality on the ground is the exact opposite. For example, schools are very good at identifying young people and families in need of early intervention, often when there is evidence that the young people are outwith parental control. However, it is almost impossible to get social work to engage in providing support unless there is evidence of ‘offending in the community’. Similarly, referrals to Children’s Reporter are usually not even passed on to actual Hearings unless there is evidence of offending. Yet, there is a deliberate strategy in place of trying not to charge young people with offences if they are under 16, and to divert from prosecution if those under 18 are charged. this means that those in need of early intervention often do not have their needs addressed and then face courts as 19 year old, by which time the chances of turning round their lives are much reduced compared to if the work had been done with them when they were 13 or 14.

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