THERE HAS BEEN a great deal of negative focus recently on the effectiveness of shorter prison sentences – but what if that criticism is misdirected against a failure of prison itself, and instead should be refocussed to how short sentences are being administered? What about turning the spotlight on to the lack of rehabilitation and the environment in which the newly convicted criminal finds themselves?
Perhaps, instead of emptying the prison to avoid addressing endemic problems inside, it would it not be better, and more cost effective, to address those issues?
What are those issues? The evidence suggests there are two distinct areas: misbehaviour whilst inside, and failure to provide any meaningful activity, during that time.
Looking at the first, the fundamental question is, whether we can expect rehabilitation to take place, and there to be any positive impact on reoffending rates, given the following:
Firstly, the number of prisoners disciplined for taking or administering drugs in jail last year hit an eight-year high. To put this into context, for the second year running, more than three inmates are caught using drugs every day. And of course this does not include those who have taken drugs and managed to get away with it! Despite this, the Scottish Government has made no progress in combating this issue. In fact, Scottish jails are yet to introduce equipment to test prisoners suspected of taking legal highs, even though this has already been rolled out in a number of other parts of the UK.
Secondly, the number of prisoners disciplined for being in possession of an “unauthorised” article is at its highest since the SNP came to power. This includes weapons, alcohol, drugs, mobile phones and other articles of contraband. In fact, in 2017, almost 5 weapons a week were found in Scottish prisons.
Furthermore, in 2016-2017, 2,424 prisoners were disciplined for using threatening, abusive, or insulting words or behaviour. This has almost doubled since the SNP came to power. This does not include physical assaults which have also increased by one third over the same period.
Destroying or damaging property is up 41 per cent within the same time period, to 1,243 prisoners last year being disciplined for causing damage to property.
And finally, overall punishments handed out to prisoners are at an eight-year high: in 2016-17, a combined total of punishments for all breaches of conduct reached 35,732.
So it seems it is a pretty grim existence inside – something which the SNP seems unable, or perhaps unwilling, to grasp. Instead, it prefers to say “it isn’t working” and proceed to send criminals out on CPOs which, as revealed by the Scottish Conservatives, often do not commence for months after the prisoner is released, breaking the crucial the link between crime and punishment, thus rendering any prospect of successful rehabilitation futile. Last year, there was a 22 per cent increase in offenders who did not commence CPOs for more than four months after sentence was passed. In addition to this, some individuals have waited more than a year for their CPOs to begin, with at least one waiting 511 days in 2014-15. 412 criminals waited more than two months for their order to start, while 176 were delayed between three and four months.
So shouldn’t prisoners be made to use the time inside more productively? Quite literally a captive audience, removed from an often chaotic or vicious-circle existence, upon whom to impress the value of work, and retraining?
Not according to the SNP – on whose watch the number of hours of purposeful activity inside has fallen by over 300,000 hours in the last two years. The average prisoner receives one hour less of purposeful activity per week, compared with last year.
And that is those who are actually doing something. More than 1000 prisoners in Scotland aren’t engaged in work or purposeful activity at all, effectively resulting in 17 per cent of inmates not taking meaningful steps towards rehabilitation. According to the Scottish Prison Service, there are currently 6,266 inmates north of the border. Of those, 3,696 are enrolled in work programmes with a further 2,338 carrying out what guidelines deem “purposeful activity”. Such programmes have been shown in the past to have a significant positive impact on reoffending and prospects of rehabilitation. Once the 215 signed off sick are stripped out, that leaves 1,118 doing nothing, despite the SNP Government saying it wanted to improve activity in jails. At HMP Edinburgh there are 541 work and activity spaces for 888 offenders, while at the newly renovated Low Moss, 755 inmates have to make do with 343 slots.
So what chance is the SNP giving criminals? Offenders are being put in an environment that is getting worse and worse under the watch of this Government but instead of sorting it out and heeding Scottish Conservative evidence-based calls for prisoners to be given vocational and educational opportunities in jail, both to boost the chances of rehabilitation and pay something back to society, the SNP Government stands by its misguided view that this is irrelevant and simply releases more criminals on CPOs which are under-resourced and failing to deliver. It is therefore no wonder that, under this government, the reconviction rate is 1 in 3 – exactly where it was over 10 years ago at the start of devolution.
Prison is there not only to ensure public safety but also to act as a deterrent to those considering criminal behaviour. In addition to that its role in rehabilitation is critical, and it is absolutely vital that we ensure that this is a process which every single inmate is involved in. The SNP is all too quick to suggest we empty our prisons, not because it is the right thing to do; but because the Scottish Government has utterly failed to grasp the issues inside.
Rehabilitation is failing and misbehaviour in prisons is rising. If the Scottish Government is serious about rehabilitation, it ought to ensure prisoners are given the opportunity to work or undertake education while inside and giving this issue the careful consideration that it requires instead of taking short corners and opting for potentially dangerous alternatives.
Liam Kerr is a Scottish Conservative & Unionist MSP for North East Scotland and Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Justice.