Having had a well known interest in the penal system for years and indeed had plenty to say about it's inadequacies; I found it impossible several years ago to say no to the request from Labour Group Leader Jim Harkins and my colleagues in the Renfrewshire Council Labour Group to become Renfrewshire Council's representative on the Barlinnie Prison Visiting Committee. In actual fact I wanted the job and strangely enough there was no rush to challenge my nomination, it did not go to a vote in fact. I had strong opinions on our prison system and very few of them if any were positive, it is a huge disappointment to me that that remains the case, even more so as prison numbers increase.
It became apparent to me very quickly that the prison Visiting Committee was valued by prisoners and resented by most prison officers. I'm writing this now to put on record my strong opposition to the Scottish Government's proposals to do away with the Prison Committees and replace them with an advocacy service. The advocacy service would be selected and controlled by The Scottish Prison Service who would decide who gets the contract; begging the obvious question 'will the advocacy service stand up to those who pay their wages?' Recent consultations on this issue saw returns by 60 relevant organisations; only one of whom agreed with abolishing the Prison Committees; it will be no bombshell to readers to find that that was the Scottish Prison Service. In the judgment of this ex prison visitor that should have been game set and match in favour of the P.V.C'S but; the increasingly more and more absurd Kenny Macaskill SNP justice minister still wants them scrapped. He cites the low number of 14 requests last year to see the PVC from Barlinnie, this low number was something I was aware of when I was involved and I know the reason. During my time there I had occasion to meet prisoners on various occasions out with PVC prisoner requests and I always made a point of talking to prisoners and always asked what they knew about the PVC's and the overwhelming majority of them had no idea what I was talking about and most of those who did know about us suggested that it made for an easier life not to complain. That puts the blame for lack of response from prisoners with the prison regime itself and shamefully nothing has ever been done about it.
Two consultations have been done recently in 2005 and 2010 which revealed overwhelming support for the PVC's and a recent article quotes one of Scotland's national treasures Tory MSP Annabele Goldie (no bleeding heart liberal she) as saying ---- "their work (THE PVC'S) monitoring prisoners and investigating complaints is as welcome to the Scottish Prison Service as "a thistle in the backside" That sounds like cross party support to me if we include the SNP?
The cost? To maintain the PVC'S; to be able to say we are a fair and decent society; to refuse to go down the road of a banana republic; to ensure that members of the public appointed by local authorities can visit a prison any time; day or night; and demand to see a prisoner? £75,000 a year for the whole of Scotland, is it a price worth paying? I would spend more and make the service more modern with training for members etc. Oh! and training for Governors and prison officers as well. If prisoners cannot speak to people whom they consider to be completely impartial, if they cannot speak to people whom they can trust implicitly then we should stop criticising others who we condemn for bad treatment of prisoners like Zimbabwe and America. Without a free, honest and robust Prison Visitor's Committee Service we will have to buy in larger supplies of soap for prisoners to slip on. I wish I could take every person who writes or says or believes the "The Sun/Daily Mail" propaganda about how easy prison life is on a tour of some of the jails I have been in. Thousands go in every year illiterate and innumerate and come out years later still unable to read or count, what is the long term cost of that in money and human misery?
Contact your MSP's and let them know that you want the PVC'S kept.