Talking Point: A fairer outcome

Written by on 17 September 2014

Unsurprisingly, the criminal justice system – given its already devolved nature – did not prove nearly as prominent in the referendum campaign as other aspects of public policy. Besides a discussion among anoraks on the fallout of a withdrawal from the UK Supreme Court, it has remained somewhat silent in the shadows, working away as usual. Yet, if this referendum is considered the vehicle through which to create a more socially just and fairer Scotland then those within our prisons mustn’t be ignored, even if their voting preferences have been.

Now, I have heard Colin McConnell, chief executive of the Scottish Prison Service (SPS), speak on numerous occasions and indeed I have read many of his speeches. Few, however, have been as candid as the one published a month to the day of the poll. It was delivered to the International Futures Forum; not made with the referendum in mind but a clear link can be drawn. Here lay a highly compelling case “for the public acceptance of the need for forgiveness and redemption as the future cornerstone for reducing reoffending”.

McConnell devoted much of his speech to a discussion of labels and their continued use with regards to those kept in his custody. “... it is my firmly held belief that 21st-century Scottish society still avails itself of every opportunity to label and stigmatise the ‘offender’, the ‘criminal’, the ‘convict’, the ‘prisoner’.” That, however, did not mark his strongest charge. “It has been pointed out to me that if you were to replace the word ‘offender’ in any of these populist, retributivist articles with, say, an ethnic minority grouping or a religious denomination or a sexual orientation – there could well be a civil liberties outcry. Yet, it still appears permissible, in our 21st-century Scotland, to denigrate and disparage those who have offended, with impunity.”

In the last year or so, McConnell has started to lay the foundations for a fundamental shift in the way our prisons operate. It is by no means an easy task. It will be a nigh on impossible one, though, “if ‘society’ continues to ‘lock offenders out’ of their communities, and remains unreceptive to their return,” he acknowledged. “If ‘we’ as a Scottish ‘society’ continue to deny ex-offenders citizenship, then I fear we will inevitably fail in our bid to rehabilitate and redeem those returning from their period of incarceration. We must be more forgiving to those we would wish to see reintegrated.”

Regardless of the referendum result, it is an outcome that, in time, will be a measure of just how socially just and fair our country has become.

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