Five months have passed since David Strang became chief inspector of prisons for Scotland. He is, however, by no means new to the problems spanning the country’s prison estate. A member of the Scottish Prisons Commission – and preceding that, the Scottish Sentencing Commission – the former Lothian and Borders Police chief constable’s learning curve was arguably less steep than it would otherwise have been. Strang was, by his own admission, a “partial outsider”, albeit one struck, going round Scotland’s 16 prisons in his first six weeks, by the balancing act between confinement and rehabilitation.
In the five years or so since the McLeish Commission’s recommendations, that has been a challenging objective to achieve given the average daily population has risen 11.6 per cent from 7,183 in 2006-07 to 8,014 in 2012-13. Nevertheless, Strang, like his predecessor, Brigadier Hugh Monro, is steadfast that the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) is taking seriously the need to concentrate on their part in reducing reoffending. “When I inspect prisons, speak to staff from the lowest grade to the most senior, they are absolutely committed to, they see the role that prisons have in making Scotland a safer place and they see clearly that the job of running prisons is much more than simply locking and unlocking doors and feeding people – that I think is encouraging,” he says.
That approach is set to crystallise this week, when SPS chief executive Colin McConnell reveals the recommendations of their organisational review, a piece of work that has been twelve months in the making and promises a ‘refreshed operating philosophy’. It follows a year-and-a-half where the chief focus has been on female offenders, under the auspices of the Commission on Women Offenders led by former Lord Advocate, Dame Elish Angiolini. That focus has been unsurprising given the lack of urgency that followed Monro’s damning indictment, going back to 2009 that women’s prison, Cornton Vale, was in a “state of crisis”. Indeed, his reign as chief inspector was defined, primarily, by the Stirling-based establishment.
Is there an area set to define Strang’s time in office?
“No, I couldn’t sum that up in a soundbite,” he says. “Although I am really keen to look at the impact of imprisonment, so to what extent within the criminal justice system is what is happening in prison contributing to making Scotland a safer place, reducing reoffending, having better outcomes for prisoners. So I will be looking at the links between what happens in prison and outside, because, I suppose, this is a bit more of a personal ambition maybe coming from the Prisons Commission, but I would like to see fewer people in prison at the end [than now]. I realise that is not something that I deliver as a chief inspector but it’s an area, looking at what is the purpose of the criminal justice system and the purpose of imprisonment then if those are working well, in my view, crime should continue to fall and there should be fewer people in prison, so that for me would be what success would look like.”
The aspiration clearly has its roots in the commission, which declared its desire to see Scotland’s prison population fall to 5,000. A lofty ambition, inasmuch as only in two of the last ten years have numbers north of the border actually dropped. “That [5,000 figure] would take us back to where we were about 20 years ago, which is not all that long and crime is lower than it was 20 years ago so I think there is a mismatch,” says Strang. “Obviously, a reduction in the size of the prison population is not something that is the SPS’s responsibility; that is a wider issue for the criminal justice system in terms of prosecution and sentencing policy. But if across the whole of the criminal justice system we’re successful in reducing crime then in my view there would be fewer people in prison.
“Of course, that is not just a responsibility of the criminal justice system but recognising that that is much wider. It’s what happens to children in the early years of their life, so education and health issues all have an impact on levels of crime; it’s a challenge, really, for Scotland as a whole, about how we bring up our children to be productive and constructive citizens rather than the size of the numbers we have at the moment that end up in offending and going into the criminal justice system and in and out of prison.”
Amid projections that the daily prison population, by the end of this decade, could be almost double the figure envisaged by Strang and his colleagues working alongside the former First Minister, questions have been asked, therefore, as to whether 5,000 is a realistic aim.
“It’s not so much a target to be aimed at – it’s more aspirational that if we get the rest of the policies right then that’s not unrealistic, that that is where we could end up at,” he adds, albeit refraining from putting a timescale on it. “The projections are more based on historical movements, but I don’t accept that as a society we are more criminally minded than we were 20 years ago and the population size hasn’t changed hugely and the number of crimes and offences has fallen. There is something to be unlocked there.”
It had been hoped that introduction of the Community Payback Order (CPOs) and an end to short jail terms, as recommended by the Prisons Commission, would have started the ball rolling. As expected, numbers sentenced to less than three months had dropped considerably in the first full year of these changes being enforced. More worrying, though, three to six-month sentences had increased 14 per cent. A presumption against prison sentences of three months or less was all a then minority SNP administration could get past opposition parties at Holyrood, despite the commission originally calling for six. Strang’s outlook has clearly not wavered with time.
“That [six months] was my view on the Prisons Commission and that is still my view,” he says. “There will be occasions when it is necessary but I think a community sentence that is enforced is more productive than sending someone to prison for less than six months. You can see just by the levels of repeat offending that it clearly doesn’t work as a deterrence because people go into prison, they come out, they reoffend, they go back in. And I suppose the problem with a short sentence is that the prison service can’t really work with something because they are there for too short a time and therefore if there are underlying factors or causes of committing offences then they don’t get addressed and therefore, it is kind of an expensive way of not working constructively with people.”
Indeed, a snapshot from December 2011 included in the most recent statistical bulletin issued by the Scottish Government showed those sentenced to less than six months served on average 27 days. The chief inspector makes no secret of the fact he would like to see the presumption revisited, though he concedes: “I don’t know what the Government’s view on that is, whether that is something that they want to tackle – I don’t think it is in their legislative plan at the moment.”
There is an opportunity, perhaps, with the current consultation on electronic monitoring to shift the balance away from custody and the disruption that it entails. “Clearly for serious cases where people are violent and a risk to others then prison is absolutely the right place for them but I think there are still people who are being sent to prison who could be dealt with by other ways in the community, and tagging is one example of that,” says Strang.
A move towards GPS tracking could increase the attractiveness of Restriction of Liberty Orders (RLOs) to sentencers, though use of tagging is somewhat inhibited by the fact a CPO cannot include the measure unless it’s under breach. Use of electronic monitoring with bail could prove a more fruitful avenue, six years on from ministers deciding a pilot in the High Court sitting in Glasgow and the Sheriff Courts in Glasgow, Kilmarnock and Stirling failed to prove its worth. Angiolini turned the spotlight back on the issue having found that less than one in three female remand prisoners eventually received custodial sentences.
“Yes, I think there would be people for whom monitoring electronically on bail would be sufficient for them to secure, it’s about securing their attendance at court often,” says Strang. “If someone has repeatedly not turned up at court then you can understand exactly why the sheriff says, well, you need to stay in custody so it will guarantee that you turn up at court.
“But I think if there were other ways of securing that, and obviously electronic monitoring is one way, then that’s a much more effective use of resources than sending someone to prison. As you know, the cost of one place in prison is over £30,000 a year.”
Strang follows Monro in raising concerns regarding the numbers kept on remand inside Scottish jails and leaves the door open to the possibility of a more in-depth look as part of a greater emphasis on thematic inspections. Healthcare in prisons – responsibility for which transferred from the SPS to the NHS a little over two years ago – as well as the use of segregation, have likewise been mooted as meriting further exploration, with consultation on what to take forward progressing at the moment.
Meanwhile, the Standards for Inspecting Prisons in Scotland, which were drafted in 2006, are being rewritten with publication expected next spring following a trial in the first few months of 2014. The biggest change facing the inspectorate, however, comes in the shape of a new prison monitoring system that is currently out to consultation. Prison visiting committees will be scrapped and replaced by three prison monitors assisted by local lay monitors, all of which will sit under the auspices of the chief inspector.
“If a number of prison monitors in different prisons are flagging up the same issue, it might be something that the inspectorate will say, well, maybe we ought to do a thematic inspection on that,” says Strang. “Now at the moment, there has not been that active link between visiting committees and the inspectorate in any coordinated sense so I think there are real opportunities to do that with the new prison monitoring process.”
One aspect they are likely to be assessing, once up and running, is family access with new builds Grampian and Inverclyde set to follow recently opened Low Moss in containing a family help hub and visitor centre respectively. Cornton Vale and Edinburgh have already constructed family centres detached from the prison itself, while Perth’s equivalent attracted praise from the Justice Secretary in 2011. Unsurprisingly, Strang welcomes these developments where possible, though underlines the need to encourage those relationships more broadly rather than purely focus on physical infrastructure.
“What is important is that the prison itself recognises the importance of maintaining family links, so quite a few prisons now have parenting sessions and bonding sessions for children to come and spend time with the parent who is in prison,” he says. “And I suppose it’s just making sure that they understand that the notion about a visit isn’t like a privilege and reward for the prisoner but actually, it’s a right of the child to see their parent frequently.”
Maintaining that link between those on the inside and positive influences on the outside came into sharp focus earlier this year. McConnell learned the hard way not to use metaphors in earshot of the press when he mooted the prospect of having telephones in cells and thus triggered a spate of critical headlines, undermining the wider point about the need to sustain quality contact with friends and family. Though there are no plans in place to act on the suggestion, Strang sees no problem with it so long as current restrictions are still applied.
A much more recent contentious issue has been the debate over giving prisoners the vote, fuelled largely by the Scottish Government’s decision to maintain a blanket ban on convicted prisoners for next year’s independence referendum. Strang’s predecessor, Monro, told Holyrood a few weeks prior to stepping down that he was not convinced the right to vote was “central to improving prisoners”. On this, one senses the two do not necessarily see eye-to-eye.
“It’s a really interesting question because if you want prisoners to be responsible citizens when they leave then what they should be doing, part of being a responsible citizen is voting, so we should certainly be preparing prisoners to vote when they leave,” says Strang. “And obviously, there is a European Court finding that you shouldn’t have a complete blanket ban on all prisoners voting, so I think that should be revisited.”
It is currently being examined by a parliamentary joint committee at Westminster, while the Scottish Liberal Democrats tried without success to amend the franchise for next year’s poll to allow those serving short-term sentences – initially those serving up to four years, though this was subsequently watered down to six months – to have their say.
“No, I don’t have a particular judgment on the number that it should be but I just don’t think there should be a blanket ban on absolutely everybody, particularly on short sentences,” says Strang.
Was it wrong to apply in the case of the referendum, then? “You live in a democracy and that is what parliament has decided so, you know, there are rights and wrongs of these things, but that’s kind of where we are with that so they’re not going to. There are practical difficulties but I don’t think it was introduced because of the practical difficulties. It seems slightly out of kilter with wanting to encourage responsible citizenship as people leave prison.”