Sharing the top 3 places of fame are Celtic Park, Ibrox Park and here, Barlinnie Jail, The Bar L, The Big Hoose, where a great many of the former two teams supporters are guests of her majesty. At this time of year it shares with other similar establishments the title of the saddest place on earth. It is freezing and I am about to carry out my duty as a prison visitor, not quite the happiest task I've ever carried out. For anyone who has never been in a large prison it is difficult to describe. Over a hundred years old and it shows, with Victorian stone arches and walls and tiny cells, most now thankfully containing one prisoner where; when I first visited the place some 10 years ago it was common for a cell to hold 2 and often three with no sanitation, not very Christmassy eh? All cells now have personal sanitation thankfully, some say that is spoiling them, invariably people who have never seen the inside of a place like Barlinnie. After a while you tend to forget about the tough guy reputation of the inmates and indeed the warders as you notice that nowadays they get along quite well. Most prisoners are poor souls really and quite unable to survive without help on the outside, take away the help and back they come. When you talk to them they talk about their families, particularly at this time, are they due sympathy? Well sometimes it is not easy to sympathise with some of them but by and large the majority should not be there and it is difficult not to feel compassion, read on.
A couple of years ago a national newspaper "The Guardian" ran a series of major articles by people who are involved in the penal system. These experts stated unequivocally that approximately 80% of prisoners in the English and Welsh prison system suffered from 2 or more mental health conditions. I asked the then Governor of Barlinnie at a meeting of the Prison Visitors Committee if he was aware of the articles and whether their findings were consistent with the Scottish Prison System. He immediately said he was aware of the articles and no they were not consistent with Scottish prisons, he stated that the 80% figure was more in the region of 30% in Barlinnie, we agreed to pursue this further but never got round to it as my tenure as a visitor was ending shortly.
If 81 % illiteracy, 71% innumeracy and 80% of prisoners with two or more mental health problems is the norm and I have no reason to doubt that it is then, despite the courageous and unwavering efforts of the prison staff we have a major crisis on our hands and it has been on the increase for years.
If a prisoner is taken in to prison to start his/her sentence and is illiterate, innumerate and suffering from mental health problems or any one or combination of the 3 and that same prisoner is at the end of that sentence released still either illiterate, innumerate and suffering from mental health problems or one or a grouping of those 3 should we not at least be asking what is it that we want prisons to do, is this acceptable? If the present government proceeds with its plans over the next couple of years we will be facing a tsunami of crime and consequential prison admissions and; under the present regime that can only mean one thing, the situation will get worse and the Government will exploit the situation by acting tough to harvest votes. This has gone on too long, it's time society faced reality, prison does not work, but it might if we start to take rehabilitation seriously. At the moment and historically any suggestion of rehabilitation is disingenuous, dangerous nonsense as long as this scandalous situation continues. Investment is required now to provide gain in the long term, many chaotic lives have been made worse by the system and many lives have been ruined and families destroyed by short term expediency and cowardly decisions by politicians of every colour.
It's time to take on this problem and to make sure that politicians; properly advised by criminologists, educational experts and Mental Health professionals are forced to face up to it and made take the lead. The very last people who should have influence are red top journalists who will say and do anything to demonise prisoners and complain about how easy prisons are. These people should start the learning process about prisons by examining the numbers of suicides, attempted suicides and the incidence of self harm in the system before going away and hanging their heads in shame. Surely we no longer need to ask the question, should we be guided by penal experts or by reactionary politicians on the make and backed up by the likes of Rupert Murdoch?