Scotland's prisons are not full. Why? Because no matter how many people are crammed in to them, they cannot put up a "No Vacancies" sign. They have no option but to make more room somehow. Overcrowding is now so bad that every new prisoner admitted will certainly make things worse for all the others. Overcrowding makes things worse for everyone: for prison staff, prison managers, and prisoners. Yet again this year the prison population has reached record levels and is maintaining record levels.
Nothing has been more frustrating in the writing of annual reports in 2003, 2004, 2005 and now 2006 than finding new ways to express the damage done to Scotland's prisons by overcrowding. Nothing is more illustrative of the powerlessness of the Chief Inspector of Prisons to make any real difference where it matters most. Where it matters most is in the numbers crammed inside our prisons: reducing the damage that causes is the single thing most needed in our prisons. Everyone agrees about this: but nothing changes.
Overcrowding is not merely as bad as ever: it becomes worse year after year. The figures are depressing. In 1993 there was an average daily population of 5,637 and a design capacity of 5,736; in 2003 the average daily figure was 6,524 and a design capacity of 6,435; and in 2004-05 ( SPS now reports the figures by financial year) the daily average population was 6,779 against a design capacity of 6,396. Two years ago the most dramatic rise was in the number of prisoners on remand, while the number of prisoners under the age of 21 was falling. This year the two most striking rises in prisoner numbers are those of prisoners under the age of 21 and those of women. As quoted in my report on Cornton Vale there are more prisoners than ever before in that establishment.
The population figures do not, at first sight, seem as damaging as they actually are. That is because overcrowding is not spread evenly across the prisons of Scotland. It is concentrated in seven prisons; and in each of these prisons it is concentrated in one or two halls. Overcrowding has been most significant in Aberdeen, Dumfries, Kilmarnock, Polmont, Inverness, Greenock and Barlinnie.
However, it is not the case that overcrowding only damages the prisons which are overcrowded. Because there are more prisoners in our prisons than they can hold all sorts of matters across the whole prison estate, from the progression of long-term prisoners to the movement of staff, are affected.
The nine evils of overcrowding
Here are nine ways in which overcrowding does harm:
- It increases the number of prisoners managed by prison staff who, as a result, have less time to devote to screening prisoners for self-harm or suicide, prisoners with mental health problems and prisoners who are potentially violent. Risk assessments will inevitably suffer.
- It increases the availability of drugs since there are more people who want drugs and prison staff have less time to search.
- It increases the likelihood of cell-sharing: two people, often complete strangers, are required to live in very close proximity. This will involve another person who may have a history of violence and of whose medical and mental health history the prisoner will know nothing; and it will involve sharing a toilet within the cell.
- It increases noise and tension.
- It makes it likely that prisoners will have less access to staff; and that they will find that those staff to whom they do have access will have less time to deal with them.
- The resources in prison will be more stretched, so prisoners will have less access to programmes, education, training, work etc.
- Facilities will also be more stretched, so that laundry will be done less often and food quality will deteriorate.
- Prisoners will spend more time in cell.
- Family contact and visits will be restricted.
These nine things are wrong in themselves. It is also very important to recognise, however, that they dramatically reduce the impact which prison can make to reduce re-offending. Prisoners are less likely to emerge as useful citizens because of them. Every one of these nine points makes it more difficult for us all to live in safety. Defeating overcrowding in prison should be a goal of all those who want less crime. The Lord Chief Justice of England, Lord Phillips, recently warned that overcrowding in prisons was "absolutely fatal" for the treatment of prisoners.
There are at least five ways in which it might be possible to defeat overcrowding - building more prisons, rethinking sentencing, capping prison numbers, reducing re-offending, and reducing crime.
i) Building more prisons
When I was appointed to this office in October 2002 I was told that the plan was to build two new prisons; and that a decision on the future of Peterhead would be made soon, with the possibility that that might lead to a third new prison. Four years later the position is that no new prisons have been built, that the plan is still to build two new prisons, and that a decision will soon be made on the future of Peterhead. In that time the average number of prisoners has grown by more than 10%. If, as seems likely, it will be 2009 before the first new prison is opened, then the growth of prisoner numbers far outstrips the rate of new places being provided. This is not to ignore the remarkable new building programme which is going on at the moment. In several reports I have been pleased to welcome the new accommodation built at Polmont, Edinburgh and Glenochil; with more soon to come at Perth. But, while that will produce more prisoner places, much of it is replacing accommodation which has been found to be no longer acceptable.
ii) Rethinking sentencing
Reducing the number of people being sent to prison is much talked about as a means of reducing overcrowding. There is evidence (Jacqueline Tombs 2004: 'A Unique Punishment') to suggest that people are being sent to prison today for offences for which they would not have been sent to prison twenty years ago; and that people are being sent to prison for longer sentences today than they would have been for the same offence twenty years ago. No doubt that contributes to overcrowding. I have heard judges say that the only pressure exerted on them from outside seems to be pressure to drive sentences upwards. The effects of prison overcrowding, and the role played in it by longer sentences ought to be at least a factor in any debate which seeks to preserve the independence of the judiciary and at the same time to address matters of public concern.
It is difficult to visit prisons regularly and not be regularly struck with the thought that there are people in prison who should not be there. For some the underlying mental health difficulties, addiction problems, family crises are not likely to be made better by imprisonment. Scotland has more forms of sentencing available to the courts than many countries, and yet the numbers going to prison continue to increase. There is a circle of confidence here: the public will have little confidence in punishments in the community as long as judges have little confidence; and judges will have little confidence in them as long as these community disposals are under-resourced; and they will be under-resourced as long as the public have little confidence in them. At the same time the press does little to help the public form a clear view about the relative value of punishment in the community and punishment in prison for crimes which are less serious. So Scotland continues to be a highly "imprisoning" country. In the spring of this year I visited Sweden and Norway. Figures provided by the International Centre for Prison Studies show that the Scottish rate of imprisonment is 141 per 100,000, in Sweden it is 78 and in Norway it is 68.
It may be that punishment in the community, properly resourced and properly supervised, may be a more challenging punishment for those who have committed less serious, and non-violent, offences, than languishing in jail. In 2005 a new option of "home detention curfew" was introduced. This should reduce prison numbers. In its submission to the Sentencing Commission for Scotland in 2004 the SPS said Short term prison sentences have a disruptive and negative effect, and present little opportunity to undertake positive work with offenders. We propose that the court should not be able to sentence offenders to terms of imprisonment under six months in prison, currently a 1 year sentence. Sending more and more people into overcrowded prisons merely serves to reduce the possibility of doing something meaningful with those in prison.
iii) Capping prison numbers
Another strategy for reducing overcrowding is "capping". Scottish prisons have to accept every prisoner sent to them. Rather oddly, the press and the public sometimes blame prisons for being overcrowded, as if there was anything prisons could do about it. In my Annual Report of 2002 I wrote When Lord Woolf reviewed the causes of prison troubles in 1991 his key proposal was that no prison should have overcrowding of more than three per cent. His proposal has never been taken seriously. It would transform the conditions and treatment of prisoners in Scotland if it were.
Since then little attention has been paid to capping. In other countries, for example in Norway, avoiding overcrowding is an absolute priority: to the extent that no prisoner shares a single cell in a Norwegian prison. If a prison is full it accepts no more prisoners. Among the strategies adopted in other countries to make capping possible are waiting lists, weekend imprisonment and amnesties. None of these is popular, even when restricted to those who have committed the least serious offences. But overcrowding should not be popular either.
iv) Reducing re-offending
Reducing re-offending has been central to the policy of the Scottish Executive since it was established. It is a policy pursued for its own sake, and also pursued in order to reduce overcrowding. I gladly acknowledge the commitment, the energy and the imagination which has been put into the strategy. In particular the strategy has moved to a new level with "Making Scotland Safer" (2004); and the Management of Offenders etc. (Scotland) Act 2005. The Executive's own figures are very depressing: among a cohort of offenders discharged from custody in 2001, 62% were convicted again within two years. 1
The thrust of the policy for reducing re-offending is to strengthen the support for prisoners at the moment of release. If prisoners are released into homelessness, or into unemployment, or into addiction, they are much more likely to offend again. If prisoners are released with no family support they are six times more likely to offend again (John Ditchfield 1994: 'Family Ties and Recidivism'). Anything which can be done to move released prisoners into housing, employment and healthy lifestyles should be done: not just for the sake of the ex-prisoners and their families, but for the sake of reducing crime. New Community Justice Authorities ( CJAs) are coming into being during 2006: one of their chief functions will be to address the "gap" which often faces prisoners on release. These CJAs are designed to produce the maximum cooperation between the Scottish Prison Service, local authorities and their social work departments, the police and local health boards. One key measure of their success will be the reduction of the current 62% re-offending rate. I welcome the role which has been given to HMIP to work closely with the Social Work Inspection Agency in carrying out inspections which relate both to prisons and to the circumstances awaiting prisoners on release. This will build on cooperation already existing between the two inspectorates.
v) Reducing crime
In the long term, the most useful way of reducing overcrowding in prisons must be to reduce crime. It is reducing offending, not only re-offending, which will make Scotland safer. How that is best done is beyond the remit of HMIP. But any prison inspector, any casual visitor to a prison, cannot help recognising who our prisoners are. Before I took up this office I wrote You do not need a degree in social science to observe that we lock up a disproportionate amount of Scotland's poor people. The reasons for that are complex; but what you do about it is not lock up more poor people, but rather change for good the crippling, destructive effects of poverty on so much of our society.
Since then some real social science has offered some remarkable statistics. Roger Houchin carried out a survey which received some press attention in 2005. There are 1440 local authority wards in Scotland. One quarter of all of our prisoners come from 55 of these wards, and these wards are the very poorest in the country. One half of all of our prisoners come from 120 of these wards, and these wards are the poorest in the country. In one part of Glasgow one 23 year-old man in every nine is in prison. Only when we transform life for our poorest young men will overcrowding in our prisons disappear.
When Lord Scarman investigated riots in London twenty years ago he famously concluded There can be no criminal justice without social justice. How often in the last four years have I said We will only have better prisons when we have a better Scotland.
Children in Prison
Worse than before
There is one clear matter which would make our prisons better immediately which would not require a transformation of the poorest parts of Scotland. Our prisons would be better if it could be resolved that this year would be the last year in which any child under the age of 16 would be held in a prison or in a young offenders' institution.
After the publication of my Annual Report last year I found that my shock at discovering children in prison was shared by politicians, press and public. At that time it did seem that there was a real possibility that the practice would end. It is most frustrating to report that the situation is no better today. In 2004 - 2005 there were 18 children held in prison. In 2005 - 2006 the number was 24. The only comfort I take from that sad figure is that it includes no girls. Of these young boys most were held for only a few days; but one spent 105 nights in prison, and another 34. The youngest was 14 years and three months old (although he was removed from Polmont before he had spent a night there). There were two other 14 year-olds, one of whom spent five nights in Polmont and one four nights.
Prison is no place for a child. Prison staff try to treat children properly, and no suggestion of any other kind of treatment of children in prison has ever been made to me by anyone, including children themselves. But the damage done to a 14 year-old by being imprisoned far outweighs any good that might be hoped for from such imprisonment. Last year Scottish voices were raised loud in protest about the detention of children in an Immigration Detention Centre; and that protest proved effective. But still, in Scottish prisons and young offenders' institutions, Scottish children are being locked up. And the number is increasing.
Who are the children in our prisons?
These children are usually the least well equipped for useful, happy well-adjusted living. Most of them will have avoided school for years; they will have been victims of abuse, they will have bad physical and mental health, and they will often have no-one who really cares for them.
What good will prison do? What harm will prison do?
Since last year progress has been hard to quantify with regard to prison food. Last year I identified four issues:
- Prisoners eat bad food before they come into prison and like bad food.
- The way food is transported from kitchen to hall can cause significant deterioration.
- The budget for food has not changed since 1996.
- Most prisoners are not provided with even half of the Scottish Executive minimum recommendations for fruit and vegetables.
It is good to report progress on the transportation issue. In Perth, for example a new way of transporting and serving the food is making a real difference. As new prison blocks are coming into use the worst of the old sealed tray system with its soggy chips and soup spilling into custard may begin to disappear. It is good to report that there has been some serious examination of these food issues and others by the Scottish Prison Service. But the budget remains unchanged; and the diets are not healthy; and most prisoners still will be offered far less fruit and vegetables than they should be. I am pleased to acknowledge that in this last year inspectors found two prison halls where prisoners had ready access to fresh fruit.
There is a new Director of Health at the Scottish Prison Service, and food is now one of his responsibilities. That link, however, is rarely made at the level of the prison itself: there is not often any close association between those who provide catering and those who provide healthcare. Good food is a matter of good health: if that were to be more clearly recognised it would help caterers, healthcare professionals, and prisoners.
A year after I raised the matter as an important concern the budget for food has not increased. It remains, as it has for ten years, at £1.57 per prisoner per day. As each year passes, more prisoners say "We get less milk than we used to get"; "breakfast is not anything like it used to be"; "you can see less meat in the stew". It is difficult to see how the budget can continue to be met without reducing quantity and/or quality.
Prisoners are ill on admission
Among the most difficult tasks of the Inspectorate is to report on the healthcare which is provided to prisoners. I am grateful to National Health Service Quality Improvement Scotland for the help which they have given in providing inspectors with the technical knowledge necessary to help in this task. What makes the task peculiarly difficult is the great difference - far bigger than in any other aspect of prison life - between the service which professionals say prisoners are getting and the service which prisoners feel they are getting.
Many will say this is because prisoners have unrealistic expectations of healthcare. Against that it should be said that most prisoners are in poor health: and healthy people often do not understand the needs of ill people. It is also often said that prisoners see the health service in prison as an opportunity to cope, one way or another, with their addiction. That is certainly true; but it also might be a legitimate expectation. It is sometimes said that prisoners have better access to healthcare than do people outside prison. Only once, in any inspection report, has the judgement of professional health inspectors been that the quality of care is the equivalent to that in the community.
More important than the problem of inspecting healthcare in prison is the problem of healthcare in prison itself. This has at least three aspects:
- The difficulty of recruiting staff, especially nurses and mental health nurses, to work in prison.
- The difficulty of fragmentation of provision: GP services provided by a private company, nursing service provided by the Scottish Prison Service, other services (e.g. hospital care) provided by the National Health Service.
- The bad health: physical, mental and dental of those who come into prison.
The last of these, the bad health of those who come into prison can be illustrated easily by statistics (it is also immediately apparent to one with no medical education on any visit to any prison):
- More than 80% of prisoners smoke.
- Male prisoners have three times more tooth decay than the general public; female prisoners have fourteen times as much.
- More than 70% of prisoners have mental health problems. That is, three prisoners out of every four have mental health problems.
- As many as 7% may have psychotic illness (this is seven times higher than in the population as a whole).
- More than 80% have drug problems.
(Figures supplied by the SPS)
I have often said that it is naïve to expect prisons to make people better. In terms of health alone, these figures show what a desperate state most prisoners are in when they arrive in jail. These are the people who are being crammed into our jails, whose imprisonment creates the overcrowding which does the damage. Prisons are not psychiatric hospitals; nor are they drug rehabilitation centres. They do their best: but their best is not the right thing for many of our prisoners.
A way forward
The time has come to examine the possibility of the provision of healthcare in prisons by the National Health Service. For almost everyone else this is the provider: why should it be different for prisoners? Prisoners may be the only people in Scotland (apart, perhaps, for certain foreign nationals under certain circumstances) who cannot have their primary healthcare provided by the National Health Service.
The United Nations Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners, Article 9, says Prisoners shall have access to the Health Services available in the country without discrimination on the grounds of their legal situation. When the World Health Conference issued the "Moscow Declaration" in 2003 it said Delegates noted that penitentiary health must be an integral part of the public health system of any country ( WHO Europe, Moscow 2003).
I have met many impressive people who work in healthcare for the Scottish Prison Service. But they do not have anything like the resources of the NHS at their disposal; nor can they have the day-to-day familiarity with what is happening among their colleagues who are providing healthcare in the community; nor, crucially, can they by themselves overcome the gap in provision at the moment of release when a prisoner passes out of the care of the SPS and into the care of the NHS.
On my recent visit to Norway senior prison officials and senior officials of the Ministry of Health both told me of the improvement in the health of prisoners in Norway since, ten years ago, the Ministry of Health took over responsibility for the provision of healthcare. A former Chief Inspector of Prisons in England and Wales, Lord Ramsbotham, considered that one of his greatest achievements for prisoners was persuading the Prison Service there to hand over its healthcare to the National Health Service. In his book Prisongate, published only a few months after the NHS did take over responsibility for the healthcare of prisoners in England and Wales, he was already able to write that the situation is a great deal better than it was.
Without exception, reports on Community Placement Schemes from various Scottish prisons have been enthusiastic. After a careful risk assessment, long-term prisoners near the end of their sentence may have the opportunity to attend a work placement or study placement outside the prison in the community. In this past year, for example, the report on Greenock called these placements "a particular strength"; and the report on Cornton Vale gave this explanation of their importance By preparing prisoners to work in the community, and by helping them to develop social skills and self-confidence, community placements play a significant part in making prisoners less likely to re-offend on release and so help to make Scotland safer.
One impressive feature of these placements is the satisfaction shown by the employers. Regularly, inspectors are told by employers that the prisoners on placement with them are a good example to their workmates. More than once, prisoners have been able to bring to the placement a specific skill learned in prison. Where placements take place in a college environment the reports are equally enthusiastic. The report on the Open Estate said Without exception it is a good experience for (the prisoners): "real experience", "a proper qualification", "treated with respect". It is also important to note that it is a good experience for the College. Both college staff and other college students enjoy the presence of the prisoners on the course. Indeed, the lecturer praised them for being "good role models" for the other students in terms of their behaviour in the classroom.
It is not possible for sex offenders in Peterhead to be placed on such placements, although a very limited scheme of supervised work placements has recently begun there. There are fears about public safety whenever the possibility of sex offenders working in the community is raised. These are, of course, understandable fears. But there also ought to be fears about public safety when sex offenders are not given the best possible preparation for release. If there has been no opportunity for them to be tested in the community and no opportunity for them to develop proper social skills while they are still under the responsibility of the prison, then they are less well prepared for release than they should be; and they are more of a threat to public safety than they should be.
A similar concern was raised in the report on Greenock. At the time of inspection a newspaper report highlighting the presence of prisoners at two local colleges caused a temporary suspension of the placements. Such reports make it more difficult for the prisoners, and make it much more difficult for the college or the employer providing the placement. The alternative to such placements is that people who have committed very serious crimes will eventually be released into the community without having been tested at all outside the prison before their release, no matter how many years they have served inside prison.
Community Placements only take place after the most searching risk assessment. Every report suggests that they operate very successfully. They make an important contribution to reducing re-offending; and they are something that the Scottish Prison Service does well.
Work with young adults
Some of the best stories of this year have emerged from Cornton Vale and Polmont, where nearly every prisoner under the age of 21 is held. Two examples suggest that when young prisoners are given an opportunity to respond to a challenge, they can achieve things they never thought possible. The report on Cornton Vale says Of particular note in this area is the Young Enterprise project involving seven prisoners ('Destiny's Design') in the production and sale of decorative boxes based on a business plan developed by the Destiny's Design team. This is a very positive development and one which is valued by the participants. In a letter to the Inspectorate the team wrote … "what we have gained so far is quite amazing ... We never imagined we could have come so far and we have, as a group, a team, individually, all joined in and worked hard to make this go the way we want … We know we are the first female prisoners in the UK to be given this opportunity and we want to make it work not just for ourselves but future girls."
In Polmont there is a scheme which makes the Duke of Edinburgh's Award accessible to people in prison. The scheme was the subject of an article in The Herald. It said about one young man, who had been convicted of a violent assault three years earlier:
John exudes an energy and positivity which he says is largely due to taking part in the award scheme. Since leaving prison he has been well supported by its staff, as well as his family. "You build up a loyalty with the Duke of Edinburgh staff and you don't want to let them down by getting into bother or by being stupid. They have invested so much time and energy in your own award journey. "The greatest thing I've got from the scheme is confidence and recognition. It is one of the best things I could ever have done. It's so good to hear encouragement from someone and it has an amazing impact on your confidence. I think I'm stronger now than I was. I feel more able to voice my opinions than I used to.
"I'd recommend taking part in the awards to anybody. It is the furthest I've come to not reoffending. The scheme helps you keep focused on keeping out of trouble, but it's not a free ride. You have to work hard for every piece of encouragement and, ultimately, every award." The future is an exciting prospect for John.
Of course it would have been much better if those young women and those young men had participated in Young Enterprise Projects and Duke of Edinburgh Award schemes earlier, outside prison. Perhaps if they had they would not have offended at all. Nevertheless it is very encouraging to see the impact which such opportunities can have on young people in prison.
The SPS is very good at keeping inside prison those whom it is charged with holding. This is a very important contribution to public safety. Only two people escaped from a Scottish prison during the year (although 33 absconded from open conditions): in both cases the prisoner was captured within a few days. In the last few years the number has never been higher than two.
In 2003 there were 29 serious assaults on staff; in 2006 the number was 4. In 2003 there were 127 serious assaults on prisoners by prisoners; in 2006 the number was 74. That is a reduction of 42% at a time of rising prisoner numbers. In most prisons prisoners say that they feel safe. In the 2005 SPS Prisoner Survey, 85% of prisoners expressed no fears for their safety within the last month. Prisoners often say that the presence of CCTV cameras in prisons makes them feel more safe; credit for the reduction must also clearly be given to prison staff.
If "serious assaults" means the same now as it meant in 2003 then it is remarkable that the number has dropped so strikingly at a time when prisons are more and more overcrowded. How much better still might the figures have been if our prisons only held the number of prisoners they were built to hold.
The most surprising fact
It is no longer a surprising fact for me: after nearly four years in this office I have come to take it for granted. But it is always, without exception, the fact which most astonishes people who are not familiar with prisons. It is a figure found in the SPS Prisoner Survey. The survey is by no means an anodyne exercise in which prisoners merely provide the answers which they think might be hoped for. In a question about the standard of healthcare, for example only 55% of prisoners in the 2005 survey were positive. In a series of questions about food between 8% and 24% commented that various aspects of the catering process were "very bad". So against a background of fairly critical assessments by prisoners the answer given to the question about relationships with prison staff is nothing short of astonishing. To the question "How do you rate relationships with staff in your prison?" the number of prisoners who replied "ok or better" was 97%.
Only three prisoners out of 100 feel that they are not properly treated by prison staff. That astonishing figure is supported by the evidence of inspection after inspection. Inspections dig deeper than the Survey; for an inspection will explore what is really meant by "good relationships". It might, from the point of view of prisoners, mean merely that the staff leave them alone; or that they give in to every demand. But inspections regularly discover that good relationships mean prison staff who will try to take time with prisoners, try to listen to them, try to challenge them; and it also means prison staff who will keep good order so that prisoners can be safe.
Perhaps the explanation can be found in these good relationships for the continued functioning of our prisons in the face of ever-increasing overcrowding. But it would be a terrible mistake to take advantage of that protection for the evils of overcrowding for ever: for, sooner or later, there will be one prisoner too many. And when that time comes, no amount of good relationships will be enough.