Are Scottish Prisons Fit For Purpose: Transcript and Podcast of Panel Discussion

Judith Robertson, Chair of the Scottish Human Rights Commission, brings together a panel of people to discuss some of the issues around the prison system in Scotland. She starts by asking ‘Scottish prisons; are they fit for purpose ? Are they doing the job we want them to do ? Are they doing the job the state wants them to do ? Are they doing the job the Daily Mail wants them to do ? Which job are they doing, on who’s terms, and for whom ?


Scottish Prisons are bleak
Scottish Prisons are bleak

The rights of people who become prisoners and the rights of society in making those kind of decisions forms part of an international context of human rights. Nelson Mandela said “It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”



The states ability to remove the rights of people – for example the right to vote – whilst behind the walls of a prison, needs scrutiny. The voices of those who have had their rights abused are seldom heard, and part of the work of human rights advocates is to bring those voices to the fore and to share in the conversation.


The panel includes Lesley McAra, who is Professor of Penology at the University of Edinburgh. Her work has focused on practice, policy and how these interact to benefit – or not – people in the care of the prison service in Scotland today and historically.


Also on the panel is Pete White, the chief executive officer of Positive Prisons – Positive Futures, an organisation which seeks to give voice to those who have had experience of the prison service. Lastly on the panel is Andrew McLellan CBE, who is a Minister of the Church of Scotland and who functioned in the role of Her Majestys Chief Inspector of Prisons in Scotland between 2002 and 2009. It is with Andrew that the discussion starts…



Andrew McLellan Ex-Chief Inspector of Prison
Andrew McLellan

Andrew McLellan: Ex-Chief Inspector of Prison

As Chief Inspector of Prisons I regularly encountered people who would tell me what prisons are like. I am shifting the questions of the panel from ‘what is the state of prisons today’ to ‘what is the state of radio phone in programs about prisons today’…. What depressed me was that the same things were being rehearsed again and again.


Whatever has happened within prisons today has not happened in the public consciousness or outside of prisons. What Im going to do is to share three things I cannot stand hearing with the room, which represent the main content of radio phone in programs.


The first is that ‘Prison is a holiday camp’


This is a silly thing people say about prisons; people pay to go to holiday camps – when did you last hear of someone paying money to go to prison ? Sometimes, it is true, people do want to go to prison for a variety of very sad reasons to do with fear, protection, to do with where they are with their issues about drugs. Nobody ever wants to go to prison because it is a holiday camp.


People who say that prisons are holiday camps have nearly never been to a prison. I used to always try and take someone who had never been to a prison on my inspections when I was in the role. They always said the same two things – that it feels much safer than they expected; and it is much more bleak than they thought…


Bleak it is. When people come back from holiday, people feel relaxed, invigorated, happy. Over and over again, when people come back from prison, they feel frightened, inadequate, alone. People come out of prison with no family to go to, with nowhere to stay, with no job to go to or with a drug problem they know is ruining their lives – how dare people say it is a holiday camp.


Even sillier is ‘If you cant do the time, don’t do the crime’…


…how is that for something which sounds as if it means something but is absolutely vacuous. Nobody should do the crime; whether you can do the time or not, you should not do the crime. That seems to me to be so self evident as though committing a crime is some sort of rational process in which they thought – ‘now what are the odds of being caught, what are the chances of me going to jail ?’


That is not how it works. People get caught up in maelstroms of personal turmoil, people get caught up in bad company in pursuit of addictive behaviours they have. People often commit crimes because they are terrified by somebody else. Very seldom do people think – ‘I wonder if I should commit this crime or not?’


What really annoys him about it is that it sounds like a rational contribution to the debate, whereas in fact it is just a smug revelation that you don’t really understand the context. I once heard (he goes on) a preacher in Harlem New York say that most Christian comment on the story of the good Samaritan is to say ‘I told you that road to Jericho was a bad road and you should never have gone down it’ – and that is exactly what ‘If you cant do the time, don’t do the crime is’.


The third comment which, if you ever meet me in the street and want to see me explode with fury, say this: ‘…because you care about prisoners, it is obvious that you don’t care about victims’.


It is absolute bosh. It is a really silly and rude thing to say because the people who say it have no idea how much the people they are talking to care about victims. But even if it wasn’t rude, it is absolutely silly. I’ve never met anybody who cares about prisoners who does not care about victims. Most victims of crime, most victims of violent crime are young poor men. Indeed, most victims of violent crime are young poor men of mixed race. The people who phone into radio programs don’t have them in mind.


Of course, it is quite right to care about elderly women who are the victims of violent crime, so do I – but it is very rare that elderly women are the victims of violent crime. Of course, elderly women who are the victims of violent crime demand and need the support and care, but so do young poor men who are of mixed race. Indeed, I now get quite aggressive when I am told – ‘if you care about prisoners, you dont care about the victims of crime’ – and I always say to them ‘when did you last put your hand in your pocket for the sake of victims of crime. For the surest thing is that what we do with our money is a sign of what we believe.


Scottish prison cell
Scottish prison cell

But the thing that makes it really, really silly to say this is that it completely misunderstands who the victims of crime are. The victims of violent crime – as I have said – are primarily young poor men who are of mixed race, but the victims of crime are the families of prisoners. The victims of crime are the tax payers who bear the cost of imprisonment. The victims of crime is the country and nation of Scotland itself, because Scotland is a poorer and less happy and less peaceful and less caring society every time a crime is committed.


And that is why, those who care about the victims of crime should also be caring about prisoners. What we need is a Scotland in which there are fewer victims of crime, and that means a Scotland in which fewer crimes are committed. And that means that we need to do everything – meaning all of us, not just the people in this room who have liberal views – that anything which Scotland can do to stop people committing crimes before they go to jail. And anything the people of Scotland can do to prevent crimes being committed after they are released from jail, is the very best way to protect victims from crime; and to be a friend of victims.


If people just shut up about saying ‘if you are caring about prisoners, you are not caring about victims’ and realised that by moving prisoners into a life of profitable contribution to society, we are making Scotland a country where victims are fewer and better supported. And that benefits us all; a safer Scotland is a better Scotland.


Professor Lesley McAra
Professor Lesley McAra

18 minutes into the recording Judith Robertson thanks Andrew for a rousing introduction to the subject of prisons and prisoners. Here she goes on to introduce


Professor Lesley McAra from the School of Criminology at University of Edinburgh…

Lesley starts by saying that she wants to go back a bit historically: One of the things I want to begin with is that Scotland has many great things about it’s justice system. We have the Children’s Hearing System – for which we should all be enormously proud; we have the Scottish Human Rights Commission, and we have human rights installed within the Scotland Act. These are all things which are all absolutely vital to a civilised society.


So those are really great things about Scotland, but we also have some really disgraceful things about Scotland in terms of justice. And those disgraceful things are:


The age of criminal responsibility in Scotland, which although it might creep up to 12, still is 8 years old – one of the lowest in the world – and it is a huge and international embarrassment that it is so low.


And also we have abnormally high imprisonment rates. We have got one of the highest imprisonment rates across the EU countries and we do not have much higher crime rates than other EU countries.


That is the thing I want to interrogate this evening; why is it that in the context of many different governments trying to tackle the problem of imprisonment, that we actually until very recently had a growing prison population. Now I have been reviewing the policy over the last 20, 40, 50 years, as part of my research habits.


One of the things which is very clear to me is that we go through cycles in which a minister suddenly things that we have far too high imprisonment rates, and that we must do something about this. What we must do is have better community sentences, we must have more robust community sentences; sentences which sentencers will have confidence in – and that way we will reduce imprisonment rates in that kind of way.


Malcolm Rifkind
Malcolm Rifkind

And we have this cycle coming around roughly once every 25 years, yet still we do not seem to be able to crack the problem. When I started my career, I worked as a researcher in government and Malcolm Rifkind was the then secretary of state for Scotland. In 1988, he said in a lecture:


“whilst the use of imprisonment may be inescapable in dealing with violent offenders, we must question the extent to which short sentences of imprisonment are appropriate in dealing with offenders. Prisons are expensive to run and do not provide the ideal environment in which to teach an offender how to live a normal and law abiding life, to work at a job or to maintain a family. Perhaps some of these offenders could be dealt with via community based disposal without posing any undue risk. A robust community based disposal in view of the circumstances of the crime.”


Now I come forward to 2015, and that was 1988. Michael Matheson who is the current secretary for justice said in his Apex lecture “short prison sentences do not work in terms of rehabilitating offenders; they disrupt families and communities and gravely affect employment opportunities – I think we have heard this before – that is why my vision in which one reflects the values of a modern and progressive nation, in which the prison, in particular short term imprisonment, is used less frequently as a disposal and where there is a more robust emphasis on community sentences”.


So we have come full circle and we seem to do this once every 25 years where the policies which have been put in place never seem to work. If you look at imprisonment figures, until the last few years, we have had a steadily rising prison population rate. It just goes up and up and up and up…


And in the period immediately after Malcolm Rifkind’s announcement, and a new policy had been put in place, we found that short term sentences which had been put in place, instead of going down, went up quite dramatically. And at the same time, things like fines and community based sentences – instead of actually increasing as an alternative to custody – they went down. So there was almost an immediate opposite reaction to the one which the government wanted.


Now why is it that governments when they are trying to get imprisonment rates down – why is it that they always fail ? One of the problems which it seems to me is that when governments are trying to effect change, their first reaction is to look at institutions. And their first gut reactions is to build more institutions; build more prisons, or certainly build more institutions in criminal justice.


When the new government took office immediately post devolution, they created over 100 new institutions in relation to criminal justice; many of which had overlapping competencies – many of which were fighting for the same pots of money. So they created massive amounts of institutional structure but it didn’t seem to have any kind of purchase on imprisonment rates. Now why was that ?


The reason is that they are not tackling institutional decision making practices. So actually the cultures of institutions – the things which people are doing in their day to day practices – the culture of the police, and the culture in particular of sentences. It is sentences which are the ones which are absolutely crucial in terms of reductions in imprisonment rates. If we want to send fewer people to prison, sentences have to stop sending them to prison. So that is one of the reasons why we have not managed to reduce our imprisonment rates until very recently. It is because police and the sentencers have not changed their decision-making practices.


Who is it in Scotland that we are actually punishing ? Who is it in Scotland that we are sending to prison ? This is another disgraceful thing about Scotland, and many other countries. We are punishing the poor.


I run a longitudinal study with Susan McVie for 18 years now. We have been following a cohort of 4300 young people, and we are now aged nearly 30; so we have been following them since the age of about 12. What we have found in our study is that no matter what the policy, the overarching policy – the government policy changes from time to time – (we have had 3 different phases of policy over the last thirty years) no matter what that policy is, the decision making practices are the same.


There is a disjuncture between policy, and actually what happens on a day to day level. So what the police and what the sentencers seem to actually do in terms of their decision making is that they focus their attention on the most poor, the most dispossessed, and those who become known to them – the usual suspects.


The criminal justice system in effect, curates its own client group. The consequences for people who get caught up in criminal justice is that it entrenches them in poverty. So, from our research, what we have found that those young people who end up not in education, employment and training – the NEET’s (a young person who is “Not in Education, Employment, or Training”) at age 18; they are 3 times more likely to end up NEET . The best predictor of being NEET is if you have actually had contact with the children’s hearing system or a conviction in the criminal justice system. So criminal justice contacts, instead of actually lifting people out of poverty, supporting them into law abiding lives – actually, it is just leading them further into poverty, and further entrenching them in poverty.


We also know from our study that one of the greatest risks of being involved in violence is poverty. So we have an unvirtuous circle here where poverty begets criminal justice contact, criminal justice contacts beget poverty, poverty begets violence, violence begets poverty, poverty begets criminal justice contacts. And we cannot break free of that.


To break free of that we need to look at the institutional approach to sentences and the police. I want to just finish with a quote; a quote from the Guardian in 1944, and so this is quite a long time ago now written by someone who was writing about what to do with delinquent boys and girls:


“What these delinquent boys and girls really need is to be lapped around with love. What each of them really most needs is a friend. Today we have our theories and our psychologies, our plans and movements; even our clubs and youth centres – but have we the men and women who will give themselves unreservedly to the service of the boys and girls who need them the most ? [And this is the key sentence here says Lesley] It is the worker of a youth centre and not the furniture that matters; government should stop moving around the furniture and focus on the people”


Pete White Positive Prisons
Pete White Positive Prisons Positive Futures

27 minutes 30 seconds into the podcast Judith introduces Pete White of Positive Prisons Postive Futures.  He begins…


Firstly I would like thank Lesley for destroying half of my notes, and I also want to thank Andrew for destroying the other half. So I’m going to now improvise and make things up so I build in, and build on, rather than trample on what they just said.


I would like to ask you a few questions:

How many people were in the care of the Scottish prison service at the end of last week (August 2016) to the nearest 100 ? 7886

How many people were liberated from Scottish prisons last year at the end of their sentence ?11000

How many were released on remand from Scottish prisons last year ? 8000

So there were 19000 releases from Scottish prisons, yet the prison population stays the same at 7500 – 7800.


There is something in there which is more complicated than rocket science – far more complex. Rocket science is empirical, it can be worked out by very clever people with big machines and who blow things up a lot and throw them into the sky, and then launch them up into space. That is actually far more predictable, far more controllable than it is to control the prison population in Scotland – and many other countries too.


I think it is where we come down to the question of ‘are our prisons fit for purpose?’. Locking them up and sending them to prison for short periods of time might in some cases provide them with some kind of refuge and safe haven. It might be a place where they get a warm place to sleep, where they food and access to hot water reliably in a long time.


It can actually feel good to be safe in prison in spite of the fact you have lost your liberty, in spite of the fact you have to eat the prison food, and in spite of the fact you have to wear the prison clothes. I think it is important then to recognise that the money which goes into this is enormous. The cost of keeping someone in prison in Scotland is to the nearest thousand £34 – £40,000.


Now if we were to give that person a job and pay them £25,000 a year that would be – with tax on top of it – maybe about £28/29,000; and they would be contributing £4000 to the exchequer rather than draining £35 – £40,000 to no change in their lives.


When people are looked after in prison, they are not given much chance to determine what they do. They don’t get much chance apart from choosing which one of the prison sweat shirts they are going to wear as long as it is the right colour; and which part of the prison menu they are going to choose, out of a choice of 2 or 3 choices they get for each meal (that is only for the evening meal – the breakfast is always the same).


I think that the difficulty there is that if people are deprived of the capacity of using their self critical faculties to make decisions for themselves. They are not allowed to have cash, they are not allowed to have a phone (well most of them aren’t anyway), but you can use the local prison phone-call system which comes off at an extortionate rate of money compared to that of an ordinary pocket phone to phone friends and family.


Prison phone call

People are greeted with a message that says “this call is coming from a Scottish prison, if you don’t want to receive it please hang up now”; which is hardly a great way of making contact with the people who might actually be of some help to you when you come out by understanding where you are, how you are feeling and what you might want to talk about.


Prison visiting has improved enormously in the last few years. It would have been hard for it to get much worse but it is now good to see how an attempt is being made to make sure that people visiting people inside prison by giving the chance to be welcomed as human beings not as the allies and supporters of people who have committed crimes.


Families and friends visiting prison have been so often treated like potential prisoners rather than as people who are looking to be kind to people who have broken the law and been punished for it. Lesley is absolutely right that the ways in which people are sentenced and punished has nothing to do with what the outcomes will be for the individual.


It is to do with what it feels like for the person on the bench to say they have done it and not set a precedent that might loosen up some other punishment for somebody else elsewhere. The fact that someone could go to prison for a short period of time which could be long enough for them to believe that they should give up their tenancy if they have one; it is quite often long enough to make sure that their family breaks up; which is quite often long enough to make sure, that if they had a job at the beginning (which is quite unlikely) that they are going to lose it.


And so they go in with not very much, and come out with a lot less. The process of going into prison, as I can speak about from personal experience, is far from pleasant. The process of leaving prison is scarier. Inside prison when you move around you always move around under controlled circumstances. You know which part of the root is going with you and which part is going the other direction. And you never get a chance to stop and have conversations. There are no surprises, or very few of them certainly.


When you walk out of prison and walk out on the street on your own town, you have no idea who is going to come at you. Some people might cross the street to say hello, others will cross the road to avoid you. Others will come and tell you that they wish you were dead or that they wish that you had not come out of prison. That happens.


This comes back to what both Lesley and Andrew have been talking about – that society has quite a lot to deal with here. Who makes the laws ? We do. Who lives by them and gets away with it, or enjoys the freedom which justice gives us ? We do. If somebody breaks the law and we punish them, the state does that, it is not up to us as individuals.


So where do we go from here ? I will turn onto the smiley optimistic page now. The view from here is almost exactly the same from cell 35 in Hermiston Hall, in Edinburgh Prison, which is where I spent most of my sentence [He is referring to the top floor of the Quakers meeting hall on Victoria Street, Edinburgh]. I came out just over eleven years ago, and the view is much the same although there is a crane there just now – which is not so pleasant.


I think it is important to realise that everything that has been said so far is absolutely correct. What we have to do now is work on the fact that of the 116,000 people (roughly) who are convicted in Scottish courts last year; 60% were punished with a financial process by way of a fine or something similar – 37% got some kind of community based sentence which may have, or may not have included a fine as well – and 13% were sent to prison.

So 87% of people who go through the courts were punished in some way or another. Lesley is correct – actually, that is a bit rich coming from me, Lesley is always correct [people laugh] – but the proportion of people who come and go through Scottish prisons in that turnover of short prison sentences; those who are punished by fines or by short prison sentences, all go back to the same poor areas.


If we are going to do something about it, we are going to need to reprogram the brains of the judiciary – in a nice way of course – we need to encourage them to see things differently because they are the ones who are the greatest obstacle to change. But we also need to look at what we can do as a society to not deliver things at communities or to communities, but find out from poor communities what is it they need – what do they dream – what do they like, and what would they work towards.


The idea of participation in the judicial system is hilarious but in the justice system it is something which is being built in now. Over the last two and a half years, as one of these cyclical changes which Lesley has mentioned, community justice is being redesigned again. But this time, over the last two and a half years people who are subject to punishment are part of the process of the ways in which that process is being designed.


It may not be brilliant, but at least we have had a part in it, which means we have a part to play in making things better. Everybody has a part to play. So when you leave here, remember that – here is another number for you; what percentage of the adult male population has at least 1 conviction ?


38% of the male adult population has at least one conviction. Many of them, perhaps most of them, were caught or convicted when they were young. The percentage of adult women with at least one adult conviction ? 9% – the women amongst you, they can be proud of that.


The men amongst you can be proud of that too, because they move on quite well. And that 38% are not all pilloried – many of them make it back to being recognised as citizens. As a charity, what we seek to do is exactly that – to establish the recognition of people who have convictions as citizens, not ex-prisoners, not ex-offenders, but people.


So on that merry note, I think prisons could be fit for purpose – if there were far fewer people in there; prisons could be fit for purpose if they provided the right proportions of places for people to work and go to education; it could be fit for purpose if the people who look after prisoners were trained in the ideas of kindness and empathy, and also if they were given the capacity and authority to listen and respond to individual prisoners needs.


I think I’ve gone over my time now, thing is – if I were in a prison sentence, they would have to kick me out at the last minute and I have gone on too long – sorry, goodbye [people laugh]…


Judith Robertson Scottish Human Rights Commission
Judith Robertson

37 minutes and 50 seconds into the podcast Judith continues:

so, we have had a great round up of some of the myths that we need to deal with as a society around prisons, around justice, around how we treat people who commit crimes; a historical perspective around how policy has all the right intentions, and some really good insights – and fails dismally actually – to deliver on those insights over many decades.


And finally, on some of the progress which maybe has been made, particularly from the perspectives of the Human Rights Commission in the participation of people with lived experience in developing policy. That’s a key aspect of a rights based approach and one which has to be said, that in a prison setting is difficult to achieve; and one based on the experience of those who have been in prison, is really encouraging to hear that kind of knowledge and insight is playing a role.


Whether it achieves the breakthrough that Lesley is clear that we need, I suppose in this instance, time will tell. So we have a good amount of time now before we have to finish this session for comments, questions and contributions to the debate…


Vox Liminis

First question from the room:

Young Woman: Even in a room so, Im feeling, liberal and progressive as this that has positive things to say about prisoners I still feel embarrased saying why Im here; but I think it is important. Basically, my brother has spent seven years in prison when I was growing up, and when he was released three years ago he was given £40 and told just ‘good luck’.


He came back to the same area we came from where his addictions started, back to the same area where crime started and fights going on, unable to get a job; for three years unemployed largely in precarious low paid work. He couldn’t really function, or his family couldn’t; he couldn’t fund his family at all.


And a few years later, guess where he is back ! So yeah, we are really a living experience of what the panel have said tonight – the cycle that the prison system puts people into. I’m actually part of a project run by Vox Liminis ( – a project where 16 to 25 year olds have all experienced family imprisonment.


We make media and arts on our experience to highlight some of the issues which have been shown. Largely all of us had to see our family members being taken away when they were arrested and taken away to prisons. Many people in the group have experienced mental health issues as what we can see as a direct result of the trauma of the experience of witnessing this as we grew up


When we try and create change on this and talk to people about this – outside of the comfort of a progressive room like this – we are just seen as the children and siblings of scum; of criminals who don’t deserve any better. And I am starting to think that maybe us as families wont get the chance to get treated as citizens until our family members are treated like human beings.


And I just wonder what the panel think it will take, for society to have – what I think is really needed as a radical change in how we view prisoners which would ultimately change everything to do with the policy surrounding it when we see them as human beings; when we see them as people who are deserving of dignity and respect. One thing which I think that could be cool is that if we questioned whether giving prisoners the right to vote would be something, but I would like to hear what the panel think on what would be a way to change peoples perceptions on prisoners altogether…


Families Outside

Andrew McLellan: First Vox Luminis is a terrific thing, and you should be proud that you are a part of the work which Vox Liminis does. Secondly, it is terrible that there still needs to be – after all the years of wonderful work done by voluntary organisation Families Outside ( – it is terrible that its need to exist is as strong as ever; because however much support is given, nobody hears the sort of things which you are saying.


On the issue of prisoners voting, I think that prisoners should have the vote, and I can happily discuss more about that later; and I am happy to do that. I will say something more important than that. You said that we need to change the way we think about prisoners. I had the opportunity to work with three different Justice Secretary’s of three different parties. My sense was that – and Lesley know more about this than I do – but my sense was that it was quite difficult to try and put a piece of paper between what each of them really wanted for prisoners.


One of the sticks in my mind because of a good thing he said. Kenny MacAskill said – and he is quite right – “Prisoners are not them, they are us”. We need to recover a sense that when prisoners are lost – as your brother and friends have been lost to society – that we are all the worse for that. We need to recover a sense that just as when somebody we really do love and care about, is damaged – so when someone we don’t know and care about is damaged – that matters to us.


Now that of course, prudential elements for seeking to prevent the kind of horrible stuff that has happened to your brother. I mean there are prudential arguments which would save you money, which Pete had said – it is very expensive for people to keep going through in that cycle. But we need to learn that prisoners are not ‘them’, that ex-prisoners are ‘us’. We are Scotland, we belong together, and that means most of all, the weakest and the lost belong with us all.


Lesley McAra: Can I just reiterate that Vox Liminis are just amazing and fantastic. But also, your speaking out, and having voice is absolutely important; and I think Ive heard you speak out at the Parliament when we did an event – was it not you ? – and that happened after an edition of Scottish Justice Matters ( where we talked about young people’s voices and heard experiences like yours describing. Young people spoke incredibly eloquently and powerfully about their experiences and I was very struck that when people speak powerfully about their experiences, people were listening.


I think it is important that those kind of conversations and the language in which we discuss people and citizenship are considered. This thing about prisoners being considered ‘us’ and not just ‘them’ I think is really important. I also completely believe in prisoners voting – Im absolutely in favour of that because people go to prison as their punishment but they are locked up during the day as a punishment but they are not there for punishment. And if we can insure that people have a sense of citizenship in belonging and inclusion; that is actually the fundamental way in which people stop offending.


A lot of offending is caught up with feelings of exclusion, loss of status, loss of identity, and have no kind of stake in society, feeling as outsiders. I think that is really important. I also want to say something a little more about the employment bill and the kind of conditions to which people return when they come out of prison.


If people who come out of prison and we want to reintegrate them into society, then they need to have a job, they need to have money, they need to have somewhere decent to live, they need to have some clothes. And particularly if they are young people going into prison aged 16, say, coming out age 21, young men go through a massive growth spurt over that period and they are not going to fit the clothes that they had before – so they will need some proper clothing.


So currently people come out of Polmont Prison and they get a grant – a ‘liberation grant’ of £55; that is supposed to last them a month. A month on £55! And then, when they get universal credit, if they don’t have a job – that universal credit wont come for the first month and then it comes in one massive lump sum. So it is not done in a way that is supportive for that young person leaving prison.


And also, there is variation of services across Scotland in supporting people leaving prison. There are lots of different agencies that people who are supporting people out of prison have to contact. There are very few areas which have a liaison person to contact for someone from a prison situation to get a package of support.


There are lots of small practical things which people could do which actually enhance the citizenship of people when they come out of prison, which we are simply not doing and need attention. But more importantly than ever is actually we need to send fewer people to prison in the first place, and finally, if they get into trouble with the law we find better ways of dealing with them.


Now one of the good things about Scotland at the moment, and one of the things which is possibly changing is the ‘Whole System Approach’ to justice in Scotland for young people who come into conflict with the law.



One of the ideas of this is to try and divert young people away from the formal measures to constructive activities, or to services and support. ‘Early and Effective Intervention’ when it is needed rather than sucking them into formal systems.


And that has had, in the short term, a very large impact on the number of people who are actually going to prison, so that the reduction in the Polmont prison population has reduced massively over the last few years. That can only be a good thing. If we can find more ways of dealing with people outside of prison settings in ways which enhance citizenship, then some of those experiences which your brothers had – that your family has had – I hope would diminish. So I think those are things I would like to see.


Pete White: First of all, I am sorry to hear about what has happened to your brother – and to everyone else who is associated with him. It should not be like that. There are a few things which are changing in the right direction but never enough, and never fast enough. In the last few years the prison service have been able to appoint what they call ‘Through Care Support Officers’.


These are prison officers who are empowered to work outside the gates and walls of the prison, to establish relationships with people who still are in the prison system and to continue those relationships if the person who has been released, wishes them to carry on outside that. Although, the length of sentence that your brother had in the first instance, he should have had statutory support and not something which was his choice to take onboard.


Secondly, people in prison at the moment generally cant open bank accounts to make sure that instead of their money being put into their pocket in terms of cash, it could be paid into a bank account. Over the last two and a half years, we have campaigned for successfully to work in ways in which people serving prison sentences can open basic bank accounts before they leave.


Edinburgh Prison
Edinburgh Prison

Interestingly enough, our partners in that – in addition to the SPS (Scottish Prison Service) – have been the Royal Bank of Scotland; they know a thing or two about misusing and abusing money and trust. But at least now they have got to the stage that they are piloting this in Edinburgh Prison.


One of the things which comes across in all of this is institutional resistance to change that might see life to improved, and we have talked about judicial institutional resistance. It has also been the case that the SPS headquarters are very risk averse. Largely because of the likes of the Daily Mail and others, and we got this process with the bank accounts into the headquarters of the SPS 18 months ago and there it got stuck.


In February early this year I was given a telephone call on a Tuesday morning asking if I could meet the Cabinet Secretary for Justice in 48 hours time. And I said yes – whatever I was going to do, I was going to take that opportunity. I was then asked what I want to talk about, and I rattled off a list of ten things. They said please cut it down to four, you have only got an hour.


And so at the top of the list was asking why the process of prisoners applying for bank accounts stuck inside SPS headquarters ? Within half an hour I had a very colourfully toned phone call from SPS headquarters asking me why I got to talk to the cabinet secretary about this. I said “well, because you were not doing it”.


And so 48 hours later, when I met Michael Matheson, he said I can now promise that the pilot study will start in Edinburgh on the 1st of July. So that is one little step there as well. It is also the case that before we became registered as a charity, we were asked if we would help the government find out what it is people who have been subject to punishment felt about the Reducing Reoffending Program (


We were asked to bring men and women together who had been punished together with the policy officer and advisors of the justice division in workshops we facilitated. One thing that happened in these workshops 100% consistently was that every member from the governments team was in tears. They had no idea what the real lives were like, and they met the real people, and had conversations with real people.


And it is from that starting point that we were encouraged to become a charity to bring the voice of people such as your brother and countless others to the workshop of government. If we can change what the government think, do and say; or even better think, say and then do, then I think we can make change across the board. That is why I think that conversations like this liberal group here have to go beyond this room.


Prof Nancy Loucks Chief Executive of Families Outside: If I can just add a quick follow up to this point is that one of the things which has changed in recent years is social media. That is one thing which Kin has been working on with Vox Liminis, is creating resources for young people to share their experience and raise publicity, raise awareness, and thereby gain support for this type of issue.


Kin launched a video in May specifically about the experience of having a family member in prison – the key message from the video is about I am not my experience, and there is so much more to them as people; and to people in prison than their conviction. So there is a way to access that, view it and share it – that is how we can get these types of message across…


KIN – young people’s experience of having a familiy member in prison from Families Outside on Vimeo.


Pete White: I would just like to say that the person who spoke was Nancy Loucks Chief Executive of Families Outside.


prison wing

54 minutes 40 seconds in comes the next question:

Gentleman: I would like to hear more from Lesley about the diversion schemes which are going because it feels to me that this crossover point for 16 and 17 year olds leaving the Children’s Hearing System and then entering the Criminal Justice System is really key. I remember about 25 years ago I was involved in a bit of research in Dunbarton, and discovered to my amazement that a huge proportion of the short custodial sentences in that Sheriff Court were generated from a very small number of repeat offenders – young people who all had care backgrounds.


They had all been in the Children’s Hearing System. In fact we set up a project to work with that group and learned a lot from that. But one of the things which bedeviled us was, the funding for that was voluntary sector, it was 3 years. And we had no sooner got some experience and were beginning to build up the techniques then the project had to close. So I just wonder how, I suppose, serious the Scottish governments commitment is to that particular age group because that transition seems so key.


Lesley McAra: It is absolutely key. Actually what is interesting is how often that kind of sudden stop in a chain of system and a funding barrier – there are funding barriers which come with these transitions – actually mean that someone did have experience of very high quality care – are suddenly in a gap, and they are not actually supported.


What is interesting is that when you were working there, and that must have been also at the time when we had 100% funding for criminal justice services which were focused on 16 and 17 year olds and beyond. At that time the government ring fenced moneys there, and it was the Social Workers who were required to work with very high tarriff cases.


So quite a lot of young people coming out of the Children’s Hearing System who had their supervision terminated, they were then coming into an adult system and they were low level petty offenders. But there was no kind of support structure round them so what was care was gone, and social work-criminal justice, adult criminal justice didnt want to touch them because they only wanted to deal with the high tariff criminal justice cases.


And then, the kids would get into trouble, go back to court, and they would end up in prison because they could see no alternative – so that is a real problem. I think this current government is very committed to making a difference here and it has pushed forward. Some of this began some time ago in ‘Getting It Right For Every Child‘ and the ‘Early and Effective Intervention’.


But this ‘Whole System Approach’ is really, really trying to engage local authorities and other places to provide services which means that children dont get sucked into formal systems; and that seems to be having a really good effect as far as one can tell at the moment – but we have to sustain that.


The anxiety will be that because these things are so caught up with politics and that they want to appear strong and authoritarian, and having authority, then they often turn to criminal justice as a way of doing that. So it is a fragile thing, and it is incumbent on researchers to look at this and see if there is evidence if it is working – and I think it is working – but it is also a research/evidence imperative as well.


Click to download
Click to download

Click to download


Pete White: I would like to add to this a little bit about the way that young men are incarcerated in Polmont. Justice Analytical Services ( for the government have tried very hard to pin it all down on exactly what Lesley has said but there are some bits which they cannot actually measure.


They put it down to what they call the X-Box Factor; that people are staying in at home playing games rather than going out on the street and getting in trouble. So there is some way to go in all of this…


video game violence chart
Have video games impacted on crime figures or is it digital connectivity ? The jury is out…


Lesley McAra: But it is the right approach, it is precious and needs to be nurtured.


Andrew McLellan: We shouldn’t forget what Lesley was saying earlier about the sociological-political dimension of so many 16 and 17 year olds going to prison. Almost universally poor, almost universally with negligible educational attainment, almost universally with no experience of employment.


It is not enough to design a system which keeps people from offending whilst they are in prison. It is these issues that need more kinds of change than the justice system can offer. The government has said that its primary goal is equality; the victims of inequality are the very people we are talking about just now.


But as well as political backgrounds, and while we remember – just as every Professor of Criminology is different – so every prisoner is different; and it is a bad mistake to just talk about prisoners as though they were all the same. I was very struck as I began to encounter in very large numbers, people in Polmont, people in Cornton Vale, of the same age, by the one psychological factor which they had in common.


Many of you have mental health issues, but the one psychological factor which you find over and over and over again in these 18 year old boys in jails is a complete lack of self worth. On my first day in Polmont, some of the young men were saying to me “We only get cornflakes; we never get anything else”.


In my naivety I said “Why don’t you ask for something different ?”. Out of all the answers I was expecting, I was not expecting what I got – “We are just young offenders” – “We don’t deserve anything better than cornflakes”. Low self worth, all the political stuff, and all the extra dimensions which Lesley was talking about.


Police check

1 hour 1 minute and 22 seconds into the discussion Question Three:

Alex Dunedin: I would like to first say thanks very much, it is very important to be able to hear about these perspectives. I am interested about people being precluded from work, screened out from opportunities to gain self sufficiency.


So not only are we coming into a time when people are – and industries are – expecting more and more formal qualifications; but we are also finding that particularly corporate companies are doing police checks for the most basic of things like mopping kitchen floors. And agencies will identify somebody who had a conviction and move them out of that opportunity.


I know that Lord Dyson made a ruling on this saying that it is against human rights (, I believe. But how is this going to be enforced, because particularly people who have come out of the judicial system are pushed to the peripheries of society…



Lesley McAra: Can I answer this – something which I feel really deeply strongly about is how criminal convictions follow you and you cant lose a sort of stigma that goes along with a conviction which limits you from getting a job, and that is one of the reasons why it is exceptionally important that we change the age of criminal responsibility in Scotland.


Young people before 2011; If you were a young person who admitted an offense in the Children’s Hearing System that counted as a conviction but it would stay on their record until they were aged around 40. So a system in Scotland which we believed was decriminalising and de-stigmatising was actually really stigmatising people because this stayed on their records. The law changed; I worked very closely with Maggie Mellon ( and the Scottish Human Rights Commission on this to campaign to get a change in the law about this.


Childrens hearing panel
Childrens hearing panel


We made some success but not fully, and the success we had was that admitted offences at Children’s Hearings would no longer count as convictions but as alternatives to prosecution; except for offences that are much more serious – for which DNA could be retained. So what we still have is a system where the majority wont count as convictions but for some who come to the Children’s Hearing system will.


So we have a system which is meant to be decriminalising but effectively young people carry these things around with them for decades – and that is something which we have to change because employers do use these things; and often use them very responsively. And I think that is something which we very much have to change.


Employment; education and employment are the most important things people do. In our Edinburgh study, one of the best predictors of whether somebody will end up in prison by age 24 is whether they were excluded from School; and if they were excluded from school by age 12. That is not a direct causal link but the kind of things which happen when you become excluded from school – that has very very bad consequences.


So education, education, education, and get rid of the kinds of ways in which we do disclosure at the moment – we need to keep campaigning to change the law there.


Pete White: Im pleased to say that this is recognised as a fairly immense problem. And I can understand why you asked the question. At the moment 75% of all employers will bin their application as soon as it has become clear that somebody’s got a conviction. If they have ticked a box saying that you have a criminal conviction it goes straight in the bucket.


That is unacceptable and that is a form of punishment beyond a sentence, whether it be community or custodial. So there is now a task force which has been set up to bring together employers who currently actively seek people with convictions as their recruits. So they have good practice in place and policies and procedures which are written up for this.


Police checks by employers


I’m working with the Scottish Prison Service with the Fair Work Department of the government, and with the justice division of the government, with a view to getting it together so we make it clear to the 75% who don’t consider those who have convictions as suitable even as candidates. That in conjunction with folks work on the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act (


This is something, that sooner rather than later, will make a difference. We have people like Virgin Trains, Mariot Hotels, Greggs Bakery, Reid International, Sue Rider shops – people like that who are willing to stand up – and Timpsons the Shoe People – who are willing to stand up and say this. We need far more to do that and also we need people who are not national names, we need small businesses; we need very small opportunities made for individuals here and there.


We are not asking or suggesting that everyone coming out of prison is ready for a job, because we have already mentioned the kind of things which people have to live with. They need more help and support, and have a say in what that help and support looks like towards where they want to get to next. But for the relatively small proportion who are ready and able to go to work, we need people to remove these barriers and to make sure that the people who keep the barriers in place are eventually named and shamed.


Judith Robertson: So it is very interesting to me how quickly the conversation has moved on from prisons and talking about everything else around prisons. Im sure that is not to say that prison experience or work cant be done in that context; I’m absolutely sure, but it is really interesting how quickly we move into territory which goes before, after, around as soon as we start talking about prisons.


I was privileged to attend a two day event a couple of months ago which was being run by the Scottish Prison Service, and the vast bulk of the conversation I took part in was not about what was happening within prison systems. It is very interesting to me that is very quickly where the conversation goes. Whether that be people’s, societies attitudes to prisons; what we do in attitudes towards somebody receiving a sentence, the sentencing itself, the experience at the other end of the prison sentence – this is a societal issue, it is not just about the prison experience. And I think that is very clear in this discussion.


Andrew McLellan: Let me just complete that circle then Judith. The point is critical for people coming out of jail. Employment, housing and healthcare are key highroads for staying out of jail. But, so many people come out of prison – and as Pete said – a few of them are ready for employment and are turned down.


The majority are not ready for employment and we should recognize that that is because they have been failed by the prison system. The law says that prisoners must work every day. That never happens. It will occasionally happen for one day in one jail, but apart from that it never happens. We have been talking about how bad it is for all sorts of reasons to send so many people to prison.


One absolutely key destructive element of overcrowding in prisons is the access of prisoners to work and to training. So that for most prisoners, most of the time, imprisonment means lying in bed watching Lorraine Kelly…


Pete White interjects: …and that’s a punishment… [laughter]


Andrew McLellan continues: When they want to make you work, when you want to be learning your work, when you see one or two of the teachers pets at their work, but day after day, nobody knocks on your door because there is not nearly enough workplaces – there are not nearly enough prison officers to supervise the vast numbers of prisoners for whom this is not designed.


1 hour 10 minutes and 35 seconds in comes the fourth question:

Gentleman: There are a couple of themes in this conversation. Just how effective is the education in prisons for training and employment and so on ? How accessible is it ?


Lesley McAra: If you have a look at the inspection report from Polmont published yesterday or the day before; and I was involved in the creation of that report – I was a lay inspector drafted in to contribute. This is all in the public domain now. One of the things I would say that is potentially wonderful about Polmont at the moment is that there is a big emphasis on education.


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That this is a regime which is going to be driven by education, and bring young men through, and it is going to get them educated for job opportunities etc. That in theory is wonderful, and it could be effective if there are things that it connects to community. Many of the people working there are very committed to this ethos but the one thing – if you read this report – what you see is that there is a disjunction between the aspiration of the prison and the young men in the prison taking advantage of the opportunities.


Why is that happening ? There are all sorts of reasons why that is happening. If we look closely at this report, you could go around the prison and visit the areas where the work patterns and the education area, the services, support and arts and libraries; and there was hardly anybody there.


Part of the reason for that is because the young men are in the cells watching television, and they cant get them out of the cells. One of the reasons why you cant get them out of the cells in the mornings because they are all fast asleep because they have been watching television all night. So there is a kind of simple thing there – I was told that they cannot turn off the television sets because the electricity; if you pull the plug out of the television the whole lights on the wing would go out.


So there is a kind of design error there, so they are lying in bed all night watching television. But there is also a big concern – and this is very strongly one of David Strang’s ( points – the major focus in that institution is on security; prisons are about security and order but they are also about rehabilitation and also about education.


But they have got the balance of that slightly wrong there. There is a big anxiety in that prison about enemy management, about the fact that all these boys are coming in and got enemies and they keep track of where their enemies are, and then the route through the prison has to be carefully managed so that they don’t meet their enemies. And also in education, they must make sure that they don’t meet their enemies.


So the whole thing which could be really wonderful, is being inhibited by a number of things and that actually, perhaps, constructively, with mediation with meeting your enemies and having conversations with them rather than separating them from there enemies might move things a good way forward.


There is a potential for things to be really good but actually the capacity that is at work at the moment is being inhibited. And there are other things which are not quite right either, so if you can get enough spaces, enough effective services, and have people make use of them, and if there are opportunities to go to outside of prison; yes it can be effective, but there are so many barriers in place at the moment.


Pete White: Edinburgh has a prison population of approximately a hundred. At any one time 43 can go to the education centre. And that doesn’t really work. Even in the enhanced wing, where everyone is supposed to go to work or education – there are times when people are not allowed to go to work, because, as it has been pointed out, there is a shortage of staff. Or a key member of staff is the only person allowed to switch a machine on, is on holiday. There is no sort of back up plan in all of that.


Polmont Prison
Polmont Prison

Andrew McLellan: Polmont as it is today, as Lesley indicates is a special case because of these circumstances. Edinburgh is not. That is characteristic of all Scottish prisons. I used to be married to a teacher of home economics at Polmont. And she found that was one of the most fulfilling – I still am married to her, but she is no longer a teacher [laughter]…


…unsurprisingly she found teaching at Polmont the most fulfilling of her life. She said it was the most fulfilling teaching experience. My sense – I have no qualification to say this – my sense is that too often education in prison reinforces a sense of failure for people who failed at school.


And for that reason, lots of people in prison do not go; and those who go find the biggest opportunities are maths and history. I wish that art and home economics and music were recognised as proper education. The one area which that does score in jails is the terrific emphasis – the huge emphasis on PE (Physical Education). That is seen very much as a thing that prisoners want to do and there is a big provision for it.

1 hour 15 mins 50 seconds in comes question 5:

Woman: I’m actually very glad that we went back inside the prisons actually because when I was coming here and it said ‘Are Prisons Fit For Purpose’ I was thinking are we going to talk about the building? Are we going to talk about those who live in the prisons? Are we going to talk about staff within the prisons ?


I think Andrew you said every prisoner is different, so I think when it comes to education it is not going to be fit for purpose for every single person in that. Also about self worth, and I think that there are numerous issues that’s prevention that’s before someone goes in; after that’s a different thing. But while people – whether that be men or women – are in the prison, is what is happening in the prison fit for purpose ?


How are the policies maybe – Pete, you said something like ‘we are not going to work at or to people’ – and I wrote down, yes, you should work with. But that is because I have been reading the Community Empowerment Bill – and I’ve got that in my head. So to me, tonight is about how they are within, because everyone is so different. What might suit one will not suit another one.


Andrew, it is nice to hear that art and music – I would say theatre as well. I would say drama – you know that there is different things which could help different people in different ways. Because I think mental health came up there, the impact on families – so many different things. But whilst people are serving their sentence, is what they are doing in the prison adequate for their needs ? I know it is a statement rather than a question.


I think it comes round to Lesley – yourself – as well, the policies, you said about the prison guards – Im not sure if they are called that; Ive heard them called numerous different things – what is stopping them from being empathetic or getting them to do things in a different ways ? Is it the policies, the procedures or systems that are the barrier – what is the… ?


Lesley McAra: Can I just talk for a little bit. It would be interesting to get people to read the inspection report because it is something which they are trying to do something different and innovative but it is actually being prevented by a number of things.


First thing for me – and Andrew you said for me right there at the beginning of your first remark – you talked about bleak. I wrote in my bit of the report that especially for 16 and 17 year olds, going into the prison wing where they were housed – it was just exactly the same architecture as the rest of the prison; it is the same architecture through the whole prison actually.


It is the most bleak environment possible and there was very little socialisation; and out in the bits where people could socialise there was a fear of disorder because theirs anxieties of the prison officers who are working on the wings about disorder that is inhibiting things. And also, a need sometimes to bring them along in some of the culture change that is happening in other bits of the prison.


There also was a strong sense that they were understaffed for the kind of concentrations of problems which they have got to try to deal with. One of the things which has happened is the number of young men has gone down but it is a very concentrated population of high levels of vulnerability. Certainly the officers on the wings, and I’ve written this in my report, they felt that they were understaffed to be able to deal with things and that therefore to do some of the things – the really good work which can be done with Personal Officers and support young men – that they were finding that difficult to do.


Just standing in the wings and observing what was going on at certain points I could see how that was difficult for them in terms of the things that they have to do; getting the showering done – there is a whole set of things that have to be done. So there is an architectural issue about the spaces in which people are living which is a debilitating, bleak, debased environment – a very bleak environment. And so that is one problem.


Staff that probably don’t have enough time to do some of the things and are fearful of certain things, are not empowered to do certain things – I think is really problematic. And then there was this kind of bit up the hill which is interesting in Polmont where the bit with the education is up the hill. This prison is intriguingly built because it wasn’t a Borstal and they built around it, and then demolished the middle bit.


So the whole of the place in the middle is criss-crossed by these kind of aluminium walkways, and the walk up to the education bit is this kind of Perspex, this orange revolting Perspex with words like resilience written on it – who would understand what that really meant ? And you go up the hill to this thing, and yet there is nobody up the hill. We were there the three sunniest days of the year – there was nobody playing football…


So there’s something in that that is not… there is something that could be wonderful it has just not yet happening, and it is something to do with empowerment, it is something to do with architecture, and courage to deal with problems of order which doesn’t mean locking people up.


Pete White: I think it is possible to say that within the staff of the prison population the residential officers and operational officers who are the ones who have most contact with individuals who are imprisoned. And there is still a representation of public opinion among prison staff, and there are some members of staff who enjoy the fact that they can lock someone up saying “I’m locking you up and going home to get my tea and watch the tele” – there are people who enjoy the punishment aspect of their job.


I think we have to get over that somehow. I also wish to think that there is some way forward without rebuilding and redesigning Polmont; and bringing in Lesley and the ideas she said earlier “It is not the furniture, it is the people”. I think we have to do something which is more immediate than redesigning and rebuilding the prisons, although we should be just knocking them down and not rebuilding them at all.


Judith Robertson: Ok, I’m going to have to curtail the discussion just a couple of minutes to nine. Just to draw in my own perspective, I would like to say a huge thank you to Andrew, Lesley and Pete. You have had from my perspective a powerful insight and people here have shared their own insights and that has been hugely enriching in the conversation.


There is a lot to play for – it sounds to me like – and there is a long way to go. I’m really interested in how the rights of people, in the prison system, to a voice, through empowerment that Pete described; and I wonder how much dialogue with the young men in Polmont has actually happening on a daily basis to understand why it is that they are not making use of the resources; how better could that system be orientated to support those young men to do that ?


A lot of engagement is genuinely taking place with the young men to try to bring about that transformation. And to be honest, not having been in the Polmont prison as Pete describes, do the staff really have the skills, and is it really fair to expect them to do that in a context where the principal concern is security and not the rehabilitation. So there are lots of things really needing balanced up there.


Thank you very much everybody for engaging in the discussion, for participating and being here this evening, and for spending your time on this issue this evening. And with that happening, we stand some chance of achieving the change that it sounds like everybody here would like to see. So thank you very much.