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Life behind bars: Teresa Medhurst on the challenges facing the Scottish Prison Service

Teresa Medhurst became chief executive of the SPS on a permanent basis in March | Credit: Alamy

Life behind bars: Teresa Medhurst on the challenges facing the Scottish Prison Service

When Covid first hit in the early months of 2020, many of us voluntarily retreated to the safety of our homes, surrendering the most basic of personal freedoms.

So much has happened since, it’s easy to forget that in the period which came to be known as “lockdown”, we were prevented from travelling, meeting friends, or even visiting loved ones.

That loss of liberty was nothing new for those residing in Scotland’s prison estate, but the emergence of a killer virus brought with it challenges for those required to manage the inmates and keep them safe.

“It was a very confused picture; people were very scared,” says Teresa Medhurst, chief executive of the Scottish Prison Service (SPS). “As I was going around visiting prisons, that lack of certainty over what people were facing, the fact that there were predictions that hundreds would lose their lives – there was a palpable fear. 

“Those first few months in that lockdown were very precarious… we had people who were not going to be allowed visitors and we had seen riots happen in the prisons in Italy because of that.”

Medhurst, who became the first female head of the SPS when she was appointed to the role earlier this year, knows all about riots, having begun her career in the mid-1980s, a time of violence and unrest in Scotland’s prisons. The most infamous were in 1987 when disturbances broke out at Barlinnie and at Peterhead, where the SAS was required to put an end to a siege in which two wardens were taken hostage.

Small of stature, softly spoken and wearing bright purple nail polish, Medhurst is not what you expect of someone who cut their teeth in that environment. After completing a degree in sociology and changing her mind about a career as a social worker, she began working at Cornton Vale women’s prison in Stirling before being transferred to Edinburgh.

“There were about 800 people in a prison that was designed for about 550 – it was quite a stark contrast to Cornton Vale,” she says. “It was very much a culture shock. I did find it difficult because I was a very young woman in a male-dominated, very macho, quite disciplined organisation.

“I don’t think I’ve ever compromised on my values, but I’ve had to be firm. The mid to late 80s and early 90s in the Scottish Prison Service, we had a number of hostage takings and riots; it was a particularly turbulent time and very difficult for everyone, but particularly being a woman in that context.”

Medhurst says she has never been assaulted in her job, but has she ever feared for her safety?

“There have been times when you know the atmosphere in a prison isn’t good. There’s a tension that builds and you know there are going to be problems. That can be really unsettling in a way that you wouldn’t experience anywhere else. But you create a safe space for yourself and don’t put yourself in situations which could escalate or be dangerous.”

At the start of the pandemic with visits set to be banned for the foreseeable future, the SPS took the decision to provide prisoners with mobile phones as a link to the outside world. The policy was not without its controversies. 

The SPS spent £3.2m on the devices, and while it was claimed the phones would be unable to receive incoming calls, send texts or access the internet, it later emerged that more than 2,000 had been confiscated amid reports they were used to organise drug deals and other acts of criminality. 

“For me, ensuring that people could maintain contact with their families was critical,” says Medhurst. “Moving forward, the mobile phones were a feature of the pandemic and part of our response to that, so we will be changing our approach and looking to put something in cells which is a more permanent solution.

“There has been little evidence that they have been used for criminality. We’ve far more serious organised gang nominals within custody [than in the past], so our intelligence work with Police Scotland is incredibly important in order to ensure that we are closing down and minimising as far as possible any kind of criminality. Mobile phones are something that we monitor constantly, as well as other routes of criminal activity.” 

Following a number of drug-related emergencies last year, the decision was taken in December to begin photocopying prisoner mail, removing at least one route in for illegal substances which can be soaked into letters.

But Medhurst says it would be “naïve” to think drugs can be fully eradicated from Scotland’s prisons.

“Prisons reflect what’s happening in society, and whilst we’re sometimes slightly behind what’s happens in society, whatever is going on in our communities will happen in prisons,” she says.

“When we eradicate drugs in our communities, that’s the point we will eradicate them in prison. We don’t take it for granted, we are very proactive in our approach, and we will close down any and all routes of activity, but there’s a concerted effort to get drugs into prisons and when you look across the UK and Europe in terms of serious organised crime, this is a very well-run, well-organised and well-funded business and that’s what we’re up against.” 

The 1987 Barlinnie riot | Credit: Alamy

It’s long been the case that Scotland has one of the highest rates of imprisonment in Europe. According to statistics from the Council of Europe, an international human rights organisation, there were 135 inmates per 100,000 of population in Scotland in 2021, compared to the European average of 116 per 100,000. In smaller northern European nations such as Netherlands (54 per 100,000), Norway (57) and Denmark (67), the figures were considerably lower. 

A particular worry in Scotland is the proportion of prisoners who are being held on remand awaiting trial – up from between 15-17 per cent pre-pandemic to around 28 per cent now, according to Medhurst.

In June, the Scottish Government published legislation which seeks to reduce the remand population by emphasising custody should be a last resort and encouraging courts to consider electronic monitoring as an alternative. 

“As a nation, we have one of the highest incarceration rates in Europe,” Medhurst says. “If you look at some of the crime levels that have dropped recently, it’s difficult to understand why that’s so high. As a citizen, I would like to see the prison population reduce.”

Medhurst admits to meeting people behind bars who she didn’t think belonged there.

“Probably the starkest case I ever came across was a young woman who was 16 and came into Cornton Vale in her school uniform with her school bag. She had been subject to abuse in the home and hadn’t been supported. There was an offence that was more a cry for help. I can’t second-guess what the sheriff had decided, but it didn’t seem appropriate to me to be placing someone like that on remand.”

I ask Medhurst if a case like that would happen now, assuming it took place at the start of her career in the late 1980s or even early 1990s, and that we are now living in more enlightened times.

“It was around 2009/2010, but I do think things would be different now,” she says. “If you look at the whole-system approach and what’s happened with young people – there has been a marked shift and the number of young people in custody has dropped dramatically.”

Medhurst noticeably brightens when I ask her about the fall in the female prison population. There are currently around 280 female inmates, down markedly from around 460 in 2012, the year former Lord Advocate Dame Elish Angiolini published a report on female offenders.

“We’ve got women who have been convicted of very serious and some quite violent crimes and the right place for them in prison. But there has always been a much higher proportion of women on remand and the move into a custodial sentence has been much lower than for men, suggesting that prison isn’t always the right option.

“When I was governor of Cornton Vale, there was a mother who had committed benefit fraud. She had no previous convictions and two children – one aged five and another aged eight.

“She took the children to school and was given a custodial disposal – she had no one to pick up the children and when she came into the prison, we had to make urgent contact with her sister to make sure someone picked them up. The trauma and the impact on the children would have been as stark as the trauma on the mother.”

Earlier this year, the SPS launched a review of its policy for housing transgender prisoners, a policy which dates back to 2014 and allows inmates to be accommodated based on their self-declared gender, subject to an assessment. 

The policy states that a “male-to-female person in custody living permanently as a woman without genital surgery should be allocated to a female establishment” and should not be subject to any restrictions on their movements unless there is “clear evidence” they pose a sexual offence risk. 

“It’s the right time to undertake a review and listen to some of the concerns that have been raised,” Medhurst says. “Each case is looked at on an individual basis – we look at wellbeing and risk from a number of different perspectives.

The lack of certainty over what people were facing, the fact that there were predictions that hundreds would lose their lives – there was a palpable fear. 

“I was governor of Cornton Vale when staff were first made aware that it was the right of an individual to request a search by female staff even with male genitalia. That was a particularly difficult issue for us to work through and one where we had to listen to the concerns of the staff, but we have a responsibly to respect the law.” 

Medhurst admits to watching episodes of the ITV drama Bad Girls, which was set in a women’s prison, but says that shows such as Orange is the New Black or Prisoner: Cell Block H mostly fail to capture the reality of life behind bars.  

“We do see success stories,” she says. “At Cornton Vale, we had a woman who had a child in custody. We kept her and her child together in the independent living units. She successfully reintegrated back into the community with her daughter, which was lovely.

“I don’t think you ever develop a thick skin. You remember people and their circumstances, and you remember the successes because we do have people who come into custody who are incredibly vulnerable. Seeing them build confidence and a degree of resilience to integrate back into the community again is very rewarding.” 

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