What are we doing right in Scottish prisons that isn't working in England?

Written by Jenni Davidson on 30 October 2017 in Inside Politics

Holyrood interviews Scottish Prison Service chief executive Colin McConnell

Colin McConnell, Scottish Prison Service - Image credit: Scottish Prison Service

When Holyrood meets Colin McConnell, chief executive of the Scottish Prison Service, it’s the day after the publication of a heavily critical report of living conditions in English prisons by the Chief Inspector of Prisons in England.

It came on the same day as a withering critique by the president of the Prison Governors Association, who said prisons south of the border were underfunded, understaffed and “full to bursting”.

And for a system already beset by ugly riots, mainly sparked by overcrowding, understaffing, and criticism of private operator G4S, there are worrying signs of a service in crisis.

Thirty years ago, Scotland’s prison service was in a similar state of chaos.

Violent riots, hostage taking and rooftop protests had spread across Scotland’s prison estate and while the country today still has a very high per capita prison population by European standards, actual numbers are down to 7,494 from a high of 8,130 when McConnell took over in May 2012 and there has been no sign of a repeat of earlier troubles.

That drop is in itself a good news story.


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So what is Scotland doing right that England is getting wrong? McConnell says he is asked that question regularly, both in Scotland, but also by justice sector colleagues in England.

With a degree of caution, given that commenting on England’s prison service might come across as “hubristic”, McConnell says his impression, based on reports from prison bodies south of the border, is of “excessive budget pressures”, inconsistent policy and a lack of a sense of direction.

In contrast, he is full of praise for the Scottish Government’s handling of prisons.

“Compare that fairly, and I think evidentially, with what’s happening in Scotland, and I think what we’ve benefitted from here…has been a consistent form of government.

“Some may disagree with that view, but I’ve been running the SPS for approaching six years now and no doubt, I have benefitted from a consistent requirement presentation from the Scottish Government in terms of what prisons should be doing, and that relationship, therefore, builds up over time.

“…I think we’ve had consistency and clarity of expectation. I think related to that has been, therefore, a consistent approach to the funding.

“For the service, yes, of course, we’ve had to make cost reductions, just like every other public sector organisation has had to do, but I think the Scottish Government, and again, this is evidenced based, has done what it can to make sure that only the savings that are absolutely required have to be made and those savings [are] moderated by the need to be consistent in the journey that we’re going.”

McConnell says there is a view in Scotland that the prison experience has to be as positive as possible – within reason – so that the prison experience can help people to re-orientate themselves and not just simply fall back to the ways that got them into prison in the first place. That takes “political guts” and determination as well as operational skill to make that happen, he says.

Asked if he is pleased with how things are going in terms of the presumption against short-term prison sentences and towards community justice and rehabilitation, he replies: “Absolutely.”

“I’ve been banging that drum for some time,” he says. “You know, going back to what I’ve just said about the government expectations – which I absolutely share and promote – prison has to be as positive, as transformative as possible.

“So you’ve got to approach it, then, with the mindset of care and consideration, of respect, and to ensure there is sufficient skill and capability in the business to engage with people in a way that can help them to imagine a different future for themselves – and then put things in place, potentially, to make that happen.

“And I think that’s a journey that we’re on in Scotland. There’s loads of research out there, not just UK based, but international research, that clearly demonstrates that short periods of custody are a complete waste of time, a complete waste of money, and in fact, they cause more damage than good.”

McConnell says he’s “absolutely four square” behind the Scottish Government in its move towards a presumption against sentences of less than 12 months.

And perhaps more surprisingly, he would go even further and hopes to move to a presumption against prison sentences of less than two years, as long as it’s evidence based.

He suggests, though, that it’s something they would “walk rather than run towards”.

He’d want it to be based on solid evidence and to ensure that the community, victims, judiciary and parliament were behind it.

Over 50 per cent of the prison population in Scotland comes from the poorest 20 per cent of areas in Scotland, which McConnell refers to as a “depressing statistic”.

In a previous interview, he called prison the last resort of the welfare state. Does he believe that often people end up there because they haven’t been helped elsewhere?

It’s a truism, he replies, and one that should concern us.

“We should be really troubled by that as a nation, and as a practitioner in the justice environment, I’m certainly troubled by it.

“And that brings with it a whole complexity of challenges in terms of social deprivation, …chaotic lifestyle, …of feeling disconnected, …abandoned, …aggrieved, nobody cares, poor educational attainment or excluded from education – whole issues in terms of childhood experiences which essentially are trauma filled.

“That’s, for the most part, the section of society that is hugely overrepresented in prison,” he says.

He will “not accept in any way, shape or form” that people are born bad and says that people find themselves in difficult circumstances which inform the choices that they make, and young people particularly draw on the evidence and the behaviours that they see around them.

“So we shouldn’t be surprised that the poorer, more deprived sections of our community are vastly overrepresented in the custodial environment.

“We’ve got to step up as a nation, and certainly I’ve got to speak out as head of the prison service, to try and find…some moderating force that we can bring to bear on that and I think having an approach which keeps people in the community when they make mistakes and fall by the wayside [helps with that].”

That community approach is very much part of the Justice Strategy for Scotland and both the First Minister and Justice Secretary have talked about it in terms of Scotland’s aspirations.

McConnell suggests that by doing that, where appropriate, it will allow prisons to do better work with those who need to be there.

“I think keeping people connected with their communities, connected with their families, as much as we can and using prison sparingly and appropriately for people who, because of their behaviour really need to be there, then, we hope, because there are fewer people in prison, we can concentrate on them more appropriately and hopefully – and it is hope – with the support and help of the community itself, begin to turn their lives around.

“I think that’s a real possibility in Scotland and I think the government and the justice agencies are really working hard to put those connections and building blocks in place, between community custody and back to the community.”

McConnell has talked before about the need for a culture change in terms of public attitudes of forgiveness and redemption and people being willing to not see someone as an offender forever, which certainly informs the move towards more community sentencing.

He says that “without a doubt”, the positive effects of the policy changes and structural approaches will only be achieved if there is also a “human, cultural values-based change”.

“From a personal point of view, the human behaviour that has impacted on me most throughout my life is the act of kindness.

“When people are kind to you, your relationship with them changes – you trust, you want to help them in return and I think that the whole human relationship blossoms on the back of that.

“I think kindness is part of forgiveness and that leads to the capacity for redemption and regrowth. Scotland does present itself as an egalitarian society, ‘hail fellow well met’.

“We reach our hands out, not just across our nation or our communities to each other, but we reach across the water to different communities, and I think maybe we need to do a bit more of that in our own backyard.

“This is a nation of incredible capacity and I think one of the major challenges we have is to use that capacity with those in our community that are most deprived, and in some regards, that have hurt us most.

“I think that sense of being prepared to forgive, being kind and responsive, with a view to some sort of redemptive script being written by the person we’re hoping to help, [can] create that positive ambition for the future.

“I think that could be really, really transformative for our country.”

Part of that move towards kindness and forgiveness as a basis for transformation is a journey towards a “more responsive relationship” between prison staff and partner organisations in terms of recognising the challenges and complexities people coming into prison bring with them.

This, McConnell suggests, means professionalising it and upskilling the workforce, so that they are “more able to get into the complex challenge of being an agent of change”.

The Scottish Prison Service is at the early stages of developing a prison officer professionalisation programme.

Ultimately, this will lead to a higher education diploma covering the basic ‘ologies’, sciences, and the kind of relational knowledge that social workers or probation officers elsewhere would be trained in.

The SPS is working now with trade unions, academics and other professions with a view to launching it fully in summer 2019.

The aim is to produce qualified and licensed justice professionals who will be able to work across the boundary of custody and the community, with knowledge and skillsets of both.

This sounds like a big challenge for prison officers if they are to be expected to be a mental health worker, social worker and an educator rolled into one, Holyrood suggests.

“That’s a really interesting observation,” McConnell answers, “because in some ways, that’s what prison officers are.

“When you take into account the complexities of the human challenge that we face, in some cases trying to help people just to cope on a day-to-day basis in prison, particularly those who are on short sentences, who come in having had chaotic lifestyles – no routine, poor physical hygiene, addictions, you name it – the prison officer is the person who is up front and centre every minute of the day with that individual”.

The idea, he adds, is to be able to respond to that in a professional way. Relating to this is the recent report by the Chief Inspector of Prisons in Scotland, David Strang, on issues surrounding the increasing numbers of ageing prisoners in Scotland’s prisons.

It was shocking in recounting prisoners’ experiences of struggling to get out of bunks, through prison doors in wheelchairs or to the canteen and social activities.

The SPS classes everyone over 50 as ‘old’ because age-related conditions, such as early signs of dementia and chronic health conditions, often manifest themselves at an earlier age among people in prison than in the population at large.

Currently 1,100 of the 7,450 in custody are over 50.

Strang’s report was, says McConnell, “almost revelatory” in terms of causing a rethink in approach. “Serious consideration” was being given to creating a sort of old people’s home within a custodial setting, but what came out of the report was that older prisoners were saying they didn’t want to be isolated.

The SPS has now stepped back from that and is considering how to increase capacity in existing prisons to provide the services and support for people as they age.

“So that’s the sort of direction of travel at the moment, to respond particularly to people saying, ‘please don’t put all us old people together in a corner just to decay away. Keep us as engaged and as lively as possible’. And that will certainly be our approach here on out.”

Part of this will involve further training of prison officers, but also making changes to prison buildings.

While new-build prisons will factor in accessibility, existing prisons will have to undergo change to ensure there are wheelchair-accessible doorways, space for hospital beds in cells and lifts for those with mobility difficulties. It will also mean having good relationships with community organisations who are able to provide high dependency social care.

One of the challenges, though, says McConnell, is to keep it proportionate and ensure conditions in custody are not actually better than in the community.

“I think that’s always a sensitivity challenge for the justice system. And we are, I think, on a sort of day-to-day basis, always very sensitive to the level of service we should provide, but also, how that service provision can be perceived and then juxtaposed to a similar population in the community.

“At the end of the day, however, whilst we need always to reflect that sensitivity, people who are sent to prison have to be cared for appropriately.

“It’s a requirement. But we must make sure that that care provision is appropriate, but not excessive.”

Another complex issue is the question of prisoners’ access to phones and the internet.

There is plenty of research, McConnell says, showing that family contact is a real benefit in terms of social inclusion and he’s keen that prisoners, especially those with young children, have access to telephones.

These would be landline, which are far easier to control. Interactive media, he says, would not only enhance the education programmes and addiction therapies, but also aid self-management in those who’ve had chaotic lifestyles, to allow them to connect to a library, doctor or pharmacist.

“Again, my starting point would be, and this is a bit of a broken record but this is where I start from, prisons should be as positive an experience as possible, because the benefits to the community ultimately of taking that approach are way and far beyond an approach which is negative and constraining and based on the principle of hopelessness. I would not subscribe to that at all.”

He reiterates throughout the interview his view that prisons should be “positive”.

Asked whether he sees prisons as being therapeutic rather than punishing, he clarifies that, in his view, being locked up is itself the punishment, but not what happens inside.

“So viewing prison as [the] ultimate sanction, depriving a fellow citizen of his or her liberty, is a constraint on a human right which is substantial, but that’s what our society says is appropriate.

“So having exacted that punishment on the individual, there is no aspect thereafter which itself should be punitive in that sense.

“...using that time with the individual to help them reflect on the circumstances that made that punishment necessary and to use that time positively for their benefit, for the benefit of their families and the community, I think is a high challenge for not just the Scottish Prison Service, but for our parliamentarians, because they represent the communities across Scotland.”

The numbers attest to things moving in the right direction.

Going back to the subject we started on, prison capacity, McConnell remembers that he spent his first week in the job in 2012 preoccupied by how to deal with the fact that Scottish prisons were above their maximum capacity of 8,000.

“So here we are, five and a half years later, and the [prison] population is averaging about 7,500. Sadly, I don’t see any headlines about that, but that is a huge success for government policy.

“I think…the Scottish Prison Service shares in that success to the way that our staff have gone about their work.

“Our colleagues in the community are part of that. There’s a real success story happening in Scotland that really is below the radar.”

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