There is a village in south Florida, some two-plus miles from the nearest town, where more than 100 registered sex offenders live. Constrained by strict residency requirements that serve to push them out of populated areas on their release from prison, here, at the edge of the Everglades, is where they have settled. “Is that something we would ever want to see in Scotland?” asks Glenochil Prison governor Nigel Ironside, not pausing for an answer. “I absolutely hope not because it’s fundamentally the penal system and our inclusive welfare system failing; to be able to say, actually, we can’t accept people back. And we become a retributive nation, which is, I think, what America is just now.”
Glenochil, sitting on the outskirts of Stirling, houses an even split of sex offenders and mainstream prisoners serving four years plus. Their segregation is not confined to the central Scotland jail, though. Challenges persist over integration of the sex offender population with the mainstream at the end of sentence, with the traditional route being to send them to a national ‘top-end’ facility as they near their parole qualifying date (PQD). But the numbers going to national ‘top-ends’ – only three from the sex offender population have been moved on in the last year compared to 30 from the mainstream population – and their desire to do so remains “limited”, admits Ironside.
“We need to rethink how we do that. There is a sex offender strategy group that is looking at this issue just now to say, ‘what does reintegration look like, what is that journey for a long-term sex offender’, some of whom have done a significant amount of time in custody – 30-40 years – and are looking at going into a world that they probably don’t really recognise, so how do we do that and do that meaningfully over a staged process that also looks at risk.
“And there is the huge issue of the public reaction to sex offenders coming back into the community and there needs to be some very mature, open and public conversation, I believe, about that. Because at the moment, it’s very much driven by a sensationalist, tabloid-journalism approach which, and the Ched Evans case is a classic example where somebody has served time for a sexual offence, has tried to come back into the community, and is being effectively publicly ostracised and therefore [is] finding it very difficult to re-establish themselves. I don’t know the ins and outs of that case, but it demonstrates the public affront that exists around sexual offending.”
This, despite reoffending rates for sexual offenders being consistently lower relative to all other types of offending. In 2011-12, the reconviction rate stood at 12.6 per cent, less than a third of crimes of dishonesty, such as theft and housebreaking, and half the rate for violent crime. “The fear of it is much, much higher and that’s fuelled by a hysterical media and, of course, the legacy of Savile and other celebrity sex offender cases does nothing other than to fuel this whole idea that there’s a sex offender in every corner,” adds Ironside.
“There needs to be a really mature discussion publicly in Scotland to say, ‘what does this look like and how do we do it, how do we do it safely?’ The chief executive has been very clear [in] talking about citizen recovery – we have to be able to believe that even those who are guilty of the most heinous crimes have the opportunity to contribute back to a modern Scotland, and driving them underground just creates more horror stories than it will ever avoid. It’s a really difficult political and public issue that I think needs some airing.”
Scotland is not “as demanding or demonstrative as perhaps the press might give us credit for,” says Ironside, suggesting there is real scope to show the public that those in custody have something to offer. The former Edinburgh and Dumfries governor was speaking to Holyrood a week on from the Scottish Government’s proposals to scrap automatic early release for sexual offenders sentenced to four years or more, as well as serious offenders sentenced to over 10 years, coming back into the spotlight.
“I think what it will do is entrench those who feel that they are being singled out or targeted as an offender type compared to mainstream counterparts,” says Ironside. “For those that are entrenched, that will create issues around their willingness to engage [and] their willingness to be open to intervention. We already have a quorum who either deny their offence or who absolutely refuse to acknowledge that they will participate in any sort of intervention programme, and there will always be a quorum of individuals who are like that.
“Abolition of early release suggests that there is still this public and political vilification of sexual offences, more so than there is of other crime and other crime is as equally, if not more, harmful. I’m not defending one or the other. What I’m saying is that it is almost putting sex offending in a different arena than it is to mainstream offending and we’ve often tried to match the two [even if] the reality is the way in which we have to manage sex offenders is different to the way in which we manage mainstream.”
Ironside, however, is reticent when it comes to being drawn on Conservative proposals to do away with the system of early release altogether. “These are political questions and without a doubt they are subject to the vagaries of the political winds, so we obviously, as custodians, administer as required. But these things resonate and so, until such time as it happens, we will wait to see what the impact is on those who it affects.”
One in five of the 600-plus population at Glenochil are over the age of 50. The jail is in the process of recruiting its own throughcare support officers to work with prisoners on issues such as housing, benefits and addiction support upon their release, after successful pilots elsewhere across the prison estate. “Particularly for the sex offender population, there is scope for some legitimacy about them moving back into the community – and I use that word deliberately – if there is some official hand-holding with them,” he says, acknowledging that the model will have to be tailored given Glenochil is a national establishment.
Currently, almost 1,000 sex offenders are in custody in Scotland – equivalent to about one in six of those in prison – the one population that’s growing in light of a proactive approach by law enforcement. “We currently have a model which disperses sex offenders here, Dumfries, Edinburgh, and Barlinnie, to a certain extent. But we recognise that’s just not meeting the need, it is not meeting the requirements. We need to think about how do we corral our resources to manage that population better and increase our expertise and how do you manage that size of population in a limited estate.
“That’s currently what the sex offender strategy group and the population management group are looking at. So we are looking 10 to 15 years hence down the line to say, ‘what does the prison estate look like in the future, how do we manage that, where will we manage these, where is best to manage these’. Because it’s true that certainly there are pockets of the sex offender population all over the estate which are getting a paucity of regime because it is impossible to integrate them with the mainstream population, so it makes sense to try and corral those into particular areas.
“But that means, of course, you compromise on the community-facing element of the long-term management of those individuals. That’s the options that we’re faced with… and the sex offender strategy group, in its early thinking, is looking at a hub and spoke arrangement, which we believe that’s probably the right thing to do, so there is a centre of excellence for intervention and management long term which then allows a dispersal as and when, at appropriate times, for either progression or for release.”
Under this model, the bulk of the sex offender population would likely be managed in two sites within the current estate, albeit where has yet to be determined. Glenochil, Ironside readily admits, is “constantly playing catch-up” in terms of meeting demand. Over 100 sex offenders are required to complete ‘Moving Forward: Making Changes’ (MFMC), a cognitive-behaviour programme that has been introduced in the last year with medium to high risk adult male sex offenders in mind. However, only 36 places are available at any one time within the prison – given the treatment supervision requirements that exist – with participation subject to the punishment part of their sentence or PQD.
For Ironside, a “more reasoned and fuller judgment” of an offender’s progress in custody, that looks beyond their response to intervention as the sole arbiter, is needed. MFMC, which has been developed for use in both custody and community settings, sees core modules last for eight months, with additional modules subject to review. “Those are the elements that could be done in the community,” he says. “[We’ve] yet to see how MFMC is manifesting itself in the community and that’s at various stages around different local authorities. But it will become a significant decision factor going forward to be able to say, well you’re from, for example, Angus, we might be able to do some modules in here and actually make a recommendation to say, you’re responding well to that, that might then become a decision for you to do it in the community and that will form part of the community integration plan going forward that others will buy into and say, ‘well, that’s good’. It’s getting onto the front foot of all of that [since] at the moment we are very reactive to it.
“We have three MFMC courses running here. That is subject to psychology treatment supervision – they are a scarce resource and so in order to give ourselves the opportunity to maintain and have resilience in that delivery, we need to think about how do we put resilience into that group of staff that allows us to roll with the issues around availability of that group. We can have all the facilitators that we like but without treatment supervision, the course becomes impossible to run. And I think the community has a significant part to play in that. But again, that will require them being open to those offenders coming back into the community and participating in the community as part of their license conditions and accepting them back into the communities in which they’ve come from.”