Orcadian Column 01/09/2016

Monday morning this week was spent in Porterfield prison in Inverness.

This, I hasten to add, had nothing to do with my behaviour at the weekend wedding of Jim and Rosie Wallace’s eldest daughter, Helen. Although, on reflection, some of my dance moves were probably borderline criminal.

Instead, I was visiting the prison with fellow MSP colleagues on the Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee. We were in Inverness to discuss our work programme for the coming year, but also to take part in a series of meetings with key players in the court and wider criminal justice system.

As one of a number of new members on the Committee, the two days provided a fascinating insight into some of the issues that will no doubt dominate the Committee’s deliberations over the next five years. The visit to the prison, including discussions with staff, inmates and the wider group of people involved in prisoner rehabilitation, was perhaps a ‘highlight’, if that is the right expression.

Porterfield, of course, has gone through something of a transformation over the years. Not so long ago, it boasted a truly unenviable reputation. The infamous ‘cages’ used to segregate some of Scotland’s most notorious criminals caused huge controversy and were temporarily ‘mothballed’ after a particularly violent riot in the early 1970s.

When the ‘cages’ were finally removed in 1994, prison officer representatives warned of safety risks to their members. In the event, these dire predictions proved unfounded, as alternative methods of segregation have shown themselves to be more effective.

The make-up of the prisoner population at Porterfield has also changed considerably, with more serious offenders invariably now sent to institutions elsewhere, once convicted. What has not altered at all is the fabric of the Victorian building itself, which presents challenges for staff trying to work with a variety of different types of prisoners.

A new fit-for-purpose building has been proposed, but no agreement exists yet on where it should be located. It may not provoke riots, but this planning issue excites emotional responses locally nonetheless.

In the meantime, prison staff and colleagues from a range of external, community-based organisations continue to do impressive work, helping assess and improve literacy and numeracy, develop core life skills and attempt to avoid prison simply offering a revolving door for repeat offenders.

These efforts are not helped by the fact that a high proportion of inmates are serving short sentences, during which time there is limited opportunity to do anything meaningful with them. Attempts are now being made, however, to initiate courses that can lead to accredited qualifications even after release, often with the help and support of link workers in the community. That is welcome.

Breaking the cycle of offending is crucial. Some individuals simply ‘grow out’ of their offending behaviour. For others, a life-changing event, such as getting involved in a relationship, can do the trick. Yet, for many the process is slow and comes in stages: a gradual building up of a sense of self-worth from the wreckage of chaotic lives.

This side of prison life rarely attracts attention. Neither is it without its frustrations and failures. However, the evidence at Porterfield is that it can have a dramatic effect in turning around the lives of individuals who are then able to begin making a positive contribution to their communities; to fulfil at least some of their potential; and to cease simply representing a cost or burden to society.

How more of this can be done is something I am sure the Committee will be keen to explore over this parliamentary session.

Likewise, improving the operation of our courts is likely to be high on the Committee’s agenda. We heard this week from victims groups about the effect that drawn out procedures can have on victims and witnesses, as well as those accused of an offence. Easy solutions do not exist, and delays can be necessary and justified on occasion, but further reform here looks inevitable.

For me, the test will be whether such reform delivers better access to justice, and that is not just my view having now spent time locked up inside Porterfield prison.

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