As Oscar Wilde stood outside on his release from his sentence of hard labour at Reading Gaol he was a broken man physically as he stood in the torrential rain and driving wind his indomitable spirit prompted him to say “If this is how Her Majesty treats her prisoners, she doesn’t deserve to have any.” This applies equally today.
The latest outrage from the SNP Scottish Government is to abolish Prison Visiting Committees and replace them with an advocacy service. The advocacy service will visit once every 4/5 years and be responsible to the Scottish Prison Service while the Visiting Committee visits every week and is answerable to local authorities, or put another way they are not influenced by the prison authorities. The word to describe them in a rather ironic way for the SNP government is “independent”
The Government review stated that the committees played a crucial role in the welfare of prisons and were an asset but they are still getting the chop. Visiting Committees have been carrying out their duties for 120 years and I am proud to say that I spent approx. 6 years as a member of the service. It is a difficult job and can be depressing when you see the conditions that prisoners live in and the effect that prison has on them but I firmly believe that Prison Visitors do a vital job by shining a light on treatment of prisoners and their conditions which is bad in some cases and good in others, the SPS however would not agree with the former description which is one very good reason for keeping the Committees.
The SNP Scottish Government intend to leave Scotland as the only country out of the UK and Ireland without Prison Visitor Committees and that worries me greatly, they will in effect police themselves. Extra supplies of bars of soap have already been ordered for prisoners to slip on, 60 organisations were asked to submit answers to the consultation and only 1 out of the 60 advocated the ending of PVC’s guess who? Yes you got it in one, the Scottish Prison Service were the only ones who wanted to abolish them. Having spent time with the PVC’s I could have confidently predicted that. On visits to prisons you are treated by staff as if you are a carrier of a serious infectious disease, the atmosphere is constantly hostile and you get the message that you are considered a nuisance and a “do gooder” I will give 2 examples of what I mean. I had spent some time researching the extent of mental health issues in British prisons and the Guardian Newspaper did a week long series of thoroughly researched articles by experts on the same subject which concluded that in most prisons treatment was poor and sometimes ignored, this in the face of 80% of prisoners suffering from 2 or more mental health problems.Yes readers you read that right the investigation stated that 80% of people in prison were suffering from 2 or more mental health conditions.
I decided to ask the Governor of Barlinnie Prison about this at our next meeting , I quoted the article which he didn’t seem to know about and asked if that alarming figure of 80% was consistent with Barlinnie and he said “no it’s more like 35%” I slowly repeated to him Barlinnie has 35% and the rest of the prisons have 80% and he said “yes give or take” and moved on I was aware that he was treating me with contempt so I just said,“that’s some achievement” 'if looks could kill' no wonder they don’t want the public wandering around their jails. The second incident was on a kind of induction day for new members of the PVC we were being shown round the prison by a senior officer when we came to the visiting hall where prisoners get to meet their family and friends on visiting days, it was busy mainly with women and children. As he went to open the door to take us in I asked if I could have a word and I told him I did not intend to enter the hall, he rather abruptly asked me why and I politely explained that I did not want to impose on meetings between family and friends and prisoners and that I considered it humiliating for them to have total strangers ogling them like exhibits in a zoo. He thought for a minute and called a young prison officer over and said “please escort Mr. Kelly to the exit door at the other side of the visiting hall" which he duly did, that is not the way to treat people but he really couldn’t care less.
A spokeswoman for the Government said that “the new system would help prisoners to deal with offending behaviour and to contribute to reducing reoffending”
That was never the remit of the PVC our remit was to deal with prisoners complaints and help them with any worries they might have the prevention of offending behaviour and prevention of reoffending is the job of the prison professionals.
Prisons are hellish places full of despair and misery and sometimes the only non hostile face a prisoner sees is that of the Prison Visitor. I have spent many visits listening to the most appalling stories and been thankful that at least I was able to listen and talk to them without seeing fear and hatred in their eyes. Prison conditions are a good way of judging a society which calls itself civilised and that alas is a judgement which we fail, the SNP is about to make an already bad system worse they should think again and start by getting rid of the wretched Justice Minister MacAskill tear up the present system and start again .