Incarceration in Scotland: a system with positive evolutions in need of a generalisation of its good practices

In this guest post, Coline Constantin reflects on the recent seminar that tackled issues around incarceration in Scotland. Coline is reading for an LLM in Human Rights at Edinburgh Law School, and applied for funding for this event from the Global Justice and Global Development Academies’ Innovative Initiative Fund.

Scotland has the second highest imprisonment rate in Europe. Although English headlines for issues of overcrowding, under staffing, rising rates of self-harming cases do not find an echo north of the border, the statistic still makes it worth taking a closer look at its system. On Thursday 26 April, an engaged audience gathered at the University of Edinburgh to hear more about the positive developments and challenges of the Scottish system of detention.

Three panellists from different fields of expertise and different view angles on the Scottish situation were invited to cover topics from policy-making, to the implementation and analysis of these policies. Professor Richard Sparks, Convenor of Howard League Scotland and criminologist specialised on the different systems of detention in the UK, took us through his analysis of the particularities of the Scottish case within the UK and European context. Tom Halpin, Chief Executive of Sacro and prominent figure in the reduction of inequalities in the Scottish criminal justice system, gave us a sense of the work that is being done with communities and specific groups of people with convictions to go towards better mentoring and guidance throughout the process. Pete White, Chief Executive of Positive Prisons? Positive Future and fascinating storyteller, treated the audience with a story of his personal experience from his time inside and the aftermath of this life-changing event.

These three specialists were given the opportunity to present their own experience with the Scottish prisons and what they identify as being the best aspects as well as the biggest challenges of the system. The presentations were followed by an extensive session of Q&As enriched by the interrogations of a curious crowd.

The discussion started with Prof Richard Sparks acknowledging that there is no thorough historic comparative research on the different UK systems of imprisonment to this day. It is, however, a project he is currently trying to put together. He also asserted that, contrary to the English & Welsh system, Scotland would consider its prison system moving closer to the more liberal Scandinavian models.

Amongst all topics touched upon this evening, the most positive one concerned the ability for Scotland to provide opportunities for education and diverse activities to its prisoners. Some innovative programs, like mentoring services for women and the possibility of being released one or two days before the end of the sentence if necessary for the detainee’s reintegration, were named. Panellists agreed that, when reached, SPS officers were rather inclined to give a chance to forward-looking initiatives. Nonetheless, it was of a general impression that these initiatives need to be generalised, proposed systematically to all detainees and be secured in the long run with long-term budgets.

While some goodwill is certainly shown at a policy-making level, Scotland in itself still presents quite a few challenges. As a diverse territory with geographical obstacles, entrenched local traditions and socio-economic disparities, the country displays its differences in all sectors including its prison system. The panellists therefore flagged cultural and practical aspects which can amount to difficulties: the difference of approach and communication with communities in the Central Belt or in isolated rural locations, the specificity of remote islands which raise practical questions for family visits, transportation, group work, etc.

In relation to the evolution of the conditions in prison, addressed by Pete White, the audience picked up on the potential role of the prison staff. All three speakers admitted that a large work had already been done towards the professionalisation of this widely disregarded job, often poorly valued in society, while still extremely demanding and difficult. However, along with a change of attitude and a large work to be done towards an efficient training of the staff to properly take care of the individuals under their supervision (listening, detecting mental health issues, taking detainees through a path towards rehabilitation rather than a punishment journey), this issue has to be tackled also by taking into account external factors. A radical improvement, according to the discussants, would be achieved by reducing the number of detainees each prison officer is in charge of. They acknowledge this could be easily done, firstly by having fewer people on unjustified remand, and secondly by stopping to systematically fall back on custodial penalties for short sentences.

Finally, one of the last questions asked by the audience concerned their vision of Scottish prisons in 10 years. While some were more realistic than others, it can be noted that their three answers shared a projection of the rising role of (controlled) technology in improving conditions of detention for all. In their opinion, the most positive impacts would be on a better access to education, an essential role of keeping in contact with relatives, and the potentiality of using more geo-tracking instead of physical walls.

After such intense presentations and so many topics discussed, the panellists and organisers hope this event gave the audience plenty of food for thought for future research, projects and reflections with the aim of making the Scottish prison system a more rehabilitative place for people with convictions.

This event was hosted at the University of Edinburgh, and was made possible by the funding of the Global Justice Academy and Global Development Academies’ Innovative Initiative Fund.