The purpose of imprisonment has never been easy to define – but it is often said its fundamental role is at least to act as a form of punishment, protect the public and offer rehabilitation.
But in Scotland, and indeed countless other countries, those principles have been undermined by a number of factors that has, for many, turned prisons not into places of punishment, but refuge. The rate at which Scottish authorities incarcerate offenders is one of the highest in Europe while the nation’s reoffending figures have been widely condemned. Government figures indicate that of all those released from prison, 57.9 per cent are reconvicted within just one year – over twothirds of those sent to prison in 2009/10 had five or more previous convictions.
There is a growing consensus that the reason so many get caught in the revolving-door scenario is a lack of support services – for example, housing, healthcare, employment, community reintegration and education – when prisoners are released. Campaigners have urged the Government and local authorities to do more to ensure throughcare services match the scale of the problem. Lorraine Davidson works on the throughcare project at Sacro, a community safety charity that supports offenders, and believes the current system makes it virtually impossible for some prisoners to break the offending cycle. “Some of the people released from prison are doomed to fail because they simply do not have the support,” she said. “For many, life is easier in prison. Jail is very comfortable, your care needs are met, if you have any medical needs they are met, you get food, a roof over your head, there is people to talk to. “A lot of people get released and it seems like they’re being thrown to the wolves.”
Some of the biggest challenges facing those being released is a lack of housing, difficulties obtaining benefits, drug or alcohol treatment, employment and training. Davidson added: “Housing is the biggest issue. A lot of the people we work with are coming out and the accommodation situation is drastic. “You regularly see someone released from a jail term, they have a drug problem, they have no family, no social relationships – the local council tells them there is no supported accommodation for them to move into for months so they are sent to either a hostel or a bed and breakfast that is in dire condition.You can see why people can fail. The people that succeed are the minority. “Not only is it difficult to get supported accommodation, the benefits system is often shambolic and people are waiting four to six weeks before they get any money at all. They get a liberation grant from the prison, about £60, then sometimes nothing more for four to six weeks.”
Throughcare is generally considered to cover a range of social care work and other support services to prisoners from the point of being sentenced, during imprisonment and following release into the community. Local authorities in Scotland have a statutory responsibility to provide throughcare services to offenders sentenced to prison terms of over four years. However, there is, controversially, only a statutory responsibility to offer voluntary aftercare to prisoners sentenced to less than four years in the first 12 months of their release from prison. With Scotland’s prison population reaching a record of more than 8300 earlier this year – there is increased urgency to ensure improvements are made. Brigadier Hugh Monro, Scotland’s Chief Prison Inspector, has long argued that improving throughcare is essential to cutting overcrowding in jails. He told Holyrood: “In terms of trying to reduce reoffending rates, which are really high, this throughcare piece is a very important part of the jigsaw. I am very aware the Scottish Government and prison officials are trying very hard to address this, but it is a very complex area. “I looked at the figures for 2011/12, and the number of liberations in those 12 months from Scottish prisons was 14,387 – that is a lot of people to be reintegrated back into the community. “The issue, in my view, really comes down to whether you can connect the volume of liberations with appropriate services. Unless you have a really joined-up way of communicating amongst the authorities it is very difficult to ensure every single person is adequately swept up. “That is probably where the nub of the problem lies – the communication processes between the prisons and all the various public services and community groups that are involved.”
A commission into Scottish prisons, led by former First Minister Henry McLeish, said in 2008 (when the population was 7950) that high prison populations had to be tackled through alternatives to jail. The Scottish Prisons Commission warned inmate numbers would reach 8700 by 2016, and said this must be cut to 5000. In response, the Scottish Government introduced a presumption against sentences of three months or less last year, replacing them with community payback schemes, in the hope it would stop low-level offenders moving on to more serious criminality under the influence of fellow inmates.
Expert Fergus McNeill, a professor in criminology and social work at Glasgow University, questions why reoffending is actually not higher than it is under the current system. Prof McNeill added: “Take the example of a person who goes into prison as a result of offending that is linked to entrenched problems, perhaps around substance misuse or relationship difficulties or psychological issues. “We put that person in prison, we take their housing away, we damage their social ties, we put them in a place where they are identified later send them out into an environment where they are offered almost no support and where securing access to basic entitlements like benefits, or a GP or a dentist, is rendered difficult by the fact they have previously been incarcerated. “Society then expects people from that background and range of complex needs who have that complicated pathway to receiving services not to offend. I would argue that we should be surprised the reoffending rate is not higher.”
Tom Halpin, the chief executive at Sacro, said that while a move away from short-term prison sentences is a positive step, it needs to be matched by efficient and well-resourced throughcare. He said: “We believe people who need access to throughcare should be able to access it, irrespective of the length of their sentence and this will give them the best chance of successful reintegration. “For all prisoners serving sentences of less than four years, throughcare is voluntary and not universally available to them. “We know from the work we already do at Sacro that around 20 per cent of those who do engage with throughcare had actually declined it at the point of release from prison, and then actually accessed the service in crisis afterwards. “There is an increasing sense the current level of provision of throughcare is not defendable in Scotland and certainly for those leaving prison after short-term sentences, it should be much more accessible. To set the level of statutory support at sentences of four years and more is absurd.”
Prof McNeill agrees more needs to be done to help short-term prisoners. He said: “Throughcare has gradually become more and more important and I would say the management of longterm prisoners being released – people who have been sentenced to more than four years – has become much better. “However, we have a longstanding problem in Scotland that we don’t really do very much for those sentenced to less than four years. That population are eligible for voluntary throughcare and can request it, but not every local authority is as proactive as the next in encouraging people to pick up on that offer.” It is often argued that effective throughcare is unaffordable. But Monro, who became prison inspector three years ago, said the current system can be wasteful in terms of resources. He said: “There are lots of good organisations and projects which mentor prisoners and take them out of prisons and gets them to their first appointment in the community and helps get them through that critical first two weeks. But those services are expensive, and it is what you might call a Rolls-Royce solution, but that doesn’t mean to say that is not what we should be aspiring to do. “We should aspire to a situation where every person is swept up and taken past the off-licence and to the first connection. That has to be the aim, particularly with young offenders who can be dealt with poorly when leaving prison and fall foul of the system in the first few days and once again they are back into the system. “It costs £32,000 per prison place per year, which is clearly a lot of money. But you have a situation where that money is being spent on addressing problems with the inmates when they are inside, and then when they are released there is often inadequate support for them. That wastes a lot of the good work done inside our jails – that situation seems to me to be poor value for money.”
The third sector is seen increasingly as a major player in terms of service provision and a number of projects are already operating that tackle reoffending. For example, Sacro runs a women’s mentoring service in Lanarkshire that links in with a host of organisations, including the police, criminal justice teams, social work and drug treatment. The service, which has a number of trained volunteer mentors, aims to reduce the number of custodial sentences received by female offenders. On receipt of a referral, staff meet with the prospective female mentee and carry out an assessment and match them with a suitable mentor. An action plan is designed and the mentor carries out several jobs, which can include accompanying the women to key appointments with health professionals. It is hoped models such as this can be expanded to work with all offenders in an attempt to reduce reoffending. The Scottish Government admits throughcare provisions are not what they should be, and insists it is a priority area. A spokesman said: “It has for some time now been generally acknowledged within the justice sector that the current arrangements for the transition and integration of both long-term and short-term offenders from prison to the community are not always as effective, efficient and equitable, as they could be. “Mr MacAskill [the Justice Secretary] therefore announced to Parliament at the end of last year that the Government will be leading a review of prisoner throughcare. As part of the second phase of our Reducing Reoffending Programme (RRP2), we have established a project on Services and Throughcare that will be tasked with ensuring that offenders have access to the services they need, as they leave prison or complete community orders, in order to reduce their reoffending.”
But not everyone agrees with the idea that there are too many people in jail. Conservative justice spokesman, David McLetchie, said in an interview with Holyrood earlier this year: “I dispute the proposition that our prisons are seriously overcrowded to begin with. They are certainly close to capacity but the idea they are seriously overcrowded is not true “One of the things that is very interesting is we keep hearing from the Scottish Government that we have more police officers, which is true, we have prisons that are full and we have crime that is at a 35-year low. “While they are very happy to attribute the 35-year low in crime to the increased number of police officers, they don’t seem to make any connection between the 35-year low in crime and the fact our jails are full. That is because it doesn’t suit their political purpose and they don’t seem to make what most people would think is a straightforward equation, which is if you have more repeat offenders in jail then they are not in the community committing multiple crimes. “I find it astonishing the Government fails to make what to most people is a pretty bleeding obvious connection – if you’ve got more bad guys in jail, you have fewer crimes outside. It doesn’t take a genius to work that one out.”
But others point to the fact that most offenders come from vulnerable sections of the community, and therefore the state has an even bigger duty to hep those caught in the cycle of crime. According to a survey taken at the end of last year, around three-quarters of inmates in Scotland’s jails are functionally illiterate or innumerate. The Scottish Prison Service (SPS) found 77 per cent of prisoners who took part in a screening programme were assessed as lacking functional literacy, while 74 per cent lacked numeracy skills. Mental illness is also another factor prevalent among many inmates – more than 70 per cent of the overall prison population is said to suffer mental health problems.
Campaigners are increasingly arguing that in many cases, it is treatment that is needed. “It’s hard to think of a more damaging environment for people with mental health needs or a learning disability than a bleak, noisy, sparsely-staffed jail,” said Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust. “Many of these people would be better served receiving treatment and care in the community or in residential and, in some cases, in-patient or secure psychiatric accommodation, rather than languishing in prisons which are ill-equipped to meet their needs and almost bound to make their condition worse.” Carolyn Roberts, head of policy and campaigns at SAMH (Scottish Association for Mental Health), said: “We need to improve diversion away from prisons for people who need care and treatment: short sentences and spending long periods of time on remand are expensive and do nothing to reduce reoffending.”
Paul McDowell, chief executive of Nacro, the crime reduction charity, insists all parts of the UK need to radically change policy. “To think that simply locking people up for longer will make any difference is to ignore reality,” he wrote in the Guardian last month. “As a former governor of Brixton prison, I know how broken our criminal justice system has become. “Yes, people who commit crime should be punished, but we must use prison for the right reasons. If we do not, we will fail to make the lasting impact on crime and reoffending rates that the public deserve.”
There is a growing consensus that for improvement to be made, the solution lies in finding a way to link up all the services – including: housing, education, health, social care and criminal justice. Monro said: “One of the problems is in the way we resource our services – like prisons, education and health. We fund them in a vertical way, but what we need to do is work in a horizontal way. “What we need to do is to work across departments – there must be a link in with all of the services if we are to provide throughcare and cut reoffending. That is where the communication is essential, you can’t have a situation where local services don’t know someone has been freed from a prison and don’t get support in place until weeks later.” He added: “I think one of the most impressive things about the prison regime is the Link Centres where a person links-in with community workers in terms of housing, Jobcentre plus, social services and so on and I do feel they are a very good resource and have been for a few years. I would like to see that nailed home a bit more and made more widely available.”
But joining up services can be difficult to achieve, especially in terms of criminal justice where so many policy areas need to be involved. Eight Community Justice Authorities (CJAs) were set up in Scotland five years ago to “monitor, report and distribute funding for community-based criminal justice services”. At the heart of their creation was the task of transforming the way councils, the Scottish Prison Service and other local organisations work together to tackle reoffending. But the creation of CJAs, although widely welcomed, has received little fanfare. Nor have they gone uncriticised – some describing them as toothless. However, CJAs are widely defended and it is a lack of funding that is blamed for what is perceived of as underachievement. Alan Staff, chief executive of Apex Scotland, a charity which works with ex-offenders, says CJAs are a good idea in practice, but limited in what they can do by financial restraints. He said: “I think some of them do a great job and some of the chief officers are doing superb, but simply, they just don’t have the power they need to implement change. They are in an impossible position. Theoretically, they have the authority to guide expenditure, but they don’t actually have the budget. It is very difficult for any CJA to make a real difference or change the way things are done to their area because they are tied in with a silo funding system and for me, it is the funding system that is the problem; the concept of CJAs are good.”
There have been some encouraging projects where services have linked together. Last year a new national strategy to tackle youth offending was launched. The programme sees minor offenders under 18 offered support to tackle their behaviour as an alternative to prosecution. The whole systems approach (WSA) involves police, prosecutors, social workers and a large number of other support services. During a pilot in Aberdeen, the WSA approach saw youth crime fall by 20 per cent between 2008-09 and 2010-11, when 4,623 crimes and offences were committed by young people, compared with 5,875. Monro believes that approach needs to be mirrored across the criminal justice system. He said: “People fall between the cracks and sometimes it is no one’s fault, in a way it is the system that hasn’t picked up its responsibility. “I would like to see us at least aspire to a situation where every prisoner liberated from custody is, in some shape or form, swept up in a co-ordinated and joined-up fashion.”
Prof McNeill believes that not only can effective throughcare tackle reoffending, but it is perhaps an obligation. He said: “Justifying throughcare on the ticket of reoffending is fine, but there is also a human rights-based argument or a principled argument for saying we have a duty to make resettlement work for the offender. “If you are not into rehabilitation and being soft and cuddly to offenders and you believe instead in retribution, which is proportionate and fair, then if you impose punishment on someone and they complete the punishment, surely it is simply wrong to allow their punishment to continue beyond the term that the law has determined. “Therefore, there is a duty on all of us – the state, the citizen, the community – to in fact welcome a returning prisoner and readmit them to all of the benefits of citizenship. If we allow that punishment to continue beyond the term set by a court, then surely we are failing in our duty.”