Prison Population - July 2014

Scottish Prisoner Voting Arrangements

Howard League Scotland was disappointed that the overwhelming majority of MSPs chose to apply a blanket ban on voting for convicted prisoners in the forthcoming independence referendum. However, there are nonetheless a number of prisoners who will be entitled to vote: those held on remand, civil prisoners and those imprisoned for defaulting on the payment of fines, as well as prisoners who are likely to be released just prior to the referendum date.

Last month, we wrote to the Chief Executive of the Scottish Prison Service to ask what arrangements they intend to put in place to assist these individuals. We identified three distinct groups who will have the right to vote on 18 September, but who will not be able do so unless steps are taken to assist them, namely:

  • those on remand, who can vote by post or proxy;
  • those who are in prison before the vote, but who are expected to be released in time, but who may not yet be registered to vote; and
  • young people who have never been registered, particularly 16 and 17 year olds,  who will either be on remand or released in time to vote.

We wrote to seek an assurance that the Scottish Prison Service, in partnership with the electoral authorities where necessary, is now taking steps to ensure that all these groups are receiving the assistance they will need in order to be able to vote on 18 September, and an outline of the action which is planned.  We understand that voters will be able to register until 2 September and that the deadline for applications for postal or proxy votes is 3 September. 

We received a response from the Director of Strategy and Innovation on 17 June. We were very encouraged to hear that work is underway by the Scottish Prison Service, in partnership with the Electoral Commission, to prepare guidance for the referendum and to ensure that those in prison who are entitled to vote and those likely to be released in time to vote in the referendum will be given information to enable them to exercise that right. We are also very encouraged to note that this issue has been discussed at recent meetings of the electoral authorities.

It is important that those currently in prison who will be entitled to vote are given appropriate information and assistance to do so. We welcome the efforts made by the Scottish Prison Service and the Electoral Commission to make this provision.

Breaking the Cycle of Building Bigger Prisons

As the Scottish government continue planning the expansion of the prison estate it can be difficult to generate an argument which counters building larger prisons while assuaging desires for public safety and the political pressure to keep up with the rise in the prisoner population.

On the face of it building larger prisons appears logical. Politically it evidences their increased commitment to public safety; in terms of prison management it offers the chance to reduce overcrowding. However, the evidence on prison size demonstrates that larger prisons have serious consequences which undermine the Scottish government’s commitment to safety of the community, prison officer and prisoner safety and prisoner rehabilitation.

A detailed and convincing report from the Prison Reform Trust shows those committed to smaller prisons tend to have a more positive experience:

If this evidence was to be taken seriously in the penal policy-making process then the certainty of the logic behind larger prisons and their place in long-term penal planning would look increasingly questionable. Expanding the prison estate will not reduce the prison population, as Sarah Armstrong writes, we do not need to slavishly follow prison populations, but can choose to do something different, such as addressing the social inequality that paves the road to imprisonment.

When discussing changes in criminal justice behaviour the focus is always on the convicted person ‘breaking their cycle of offending’. However, perhaps if we are to begin to change the future of Scotland’s prison landscape the challenge is to break the cycle of always building more prison spaces and bigger prisons.

Read the full report from PRT here: Titan Prisons: a gigantic mistake
Dr Sarah Amstrong: The problem with prison population predictions


HM Chief Inspector of Prisons Report 2013-2014 Published

The Inspector of Prisons has published his Annual Report today.

The report aims to highlight good practice which promotes prisoners’ safety, opportunity and upholds their right to humane treatment. However, the report raises a number of concerns:

  • Scotland must reduce its high use of imprisonment and promote effective community based sanctions.
  • There is a tension in using prison to both punish and rehabilitate people.
  • Ageing in prison is a growing conern and requires increaing medical resources.
  • Access to purposeful activity should be available to all prisoners, this is currently not the case across the prison system.
  • Overcrowding and doubling-up in single cells continues to hinder programmes and access to meaningful activities.
  • Prisoners being transferred must be accompanied by their records.
  • How long people spend in segregation is still a concern and will be subject to an uncoming thematic inspection.
  • Important health and background information on newly admitted prisoners is often not reported to prison staff and health officers. This problem is particularly concerning given that these first few days in prison are when a prisoner feels the most vulnerable.
  • A national policy for addressing dirty protests in Scottish prisons should be designed as a matter of urgency.

The report also makes lengthy and specific recommendations regarding Low Moss, Barlinnie, Edinburgh, Inverness and Polmont Youth Offenders Institution.

Read the full report here

Read more:

STV: Increase in dementia and disabilities as prison population ages
BBC News: Prisoner numbers still increasing despite work on over-crowding
Holyrood magazine coverage of the report launch: Prison inspectors to focus on segregation

The problem with prison population predictions

Prison population forecasts: using the future to predict the past*

Statistics are a way of telling stories through numbers and graphs. Like any story, sometimes a statistical narrative can feel so compelling or authoritative that we lose the capacity to question it, and therefore to decide how it ends. In this post I look at how this happens with prison population projections , and I make two claims. First, I challenge the idea that past prison populations are a good predictor of future ones. And second, I suggest that the future of prison populations is not inevitable but squarely within our control.

When I was advising the Scottish Prisons Commission on their work in 2008, the prison population was hovering just below 8,000 prisoners, more than twice as many as neighbor Norway (3,600). The latest Scottish forecast shows a prison population in 2021 of 9,500 (figure 1). What seemed like a catastrophic threshold in 2008 has now become a reality which is quickly being overtaken by even bigger numbers. How did we get to 8,000, and what will lead us to 9,500?

Figure 1 OUR FUTURE? Scottish prison population projected to the year 2021

Source: Scottish Government (2012)

Statistical forecasts answer these questions by looking to the past. There are many and highly sophisticated methodologies for analysing how the past matters, but in relying on historical data in the first place an important assumption is being made about prison populations: that past growth has a predictable cause and pattern of change that can be discovered and thus extended into the future. Figure 2 shows historical growth in the Scottish prison population, and it doesn’t take an expert to see how figure 2 is connected to figure 1.

Figure 2 THE PAST? Scottish prison population growth 2002 - 2012

Source: Scottish Government (2012)

The story – literally a linear narrative – told by figures 1 and 2 is that the future looks a lot like the past, a gradual but persistent march upwards. It’s hard to argue with a straight line. It is both easy to understand but uses high science to produce, exerting a powerful legitimacy. A straight line also makes for a boring story, but boring stories are dangerous. We tend to overlook them as topics of critical inquiry; we assume they are correct. This story tells us what we might already have expected, that the Scottish prison population has been expanding and will keep on doing so. It makes a future of rising prison populations feel inevitable.

Policy makers want straight line stories because predictability, their central virtue, is essential to planning. Accurately predicting the future allows for sensible investment strategy. Getting it wrong has significant costs: building too many cells wastes millions of pounds (that could have been used on hospitals, schools and pensions); building too few risks public safety and outrage.

Statisticians have done their best to assist policy makers, trying to find the factors that explain past levels of growth.  They have been given an impossible task, however, because prison growth often is a function of volatile and unpredictable events. The murder of Jamie Bulger, 9/11, the 2008 financial crash, the election of the New Labour Government in 1997, and the election of a nationalist Government in Scotland all have had major consequences for law and policy, and thus for prison numbers. Despite this, statistical regression models continue looking at the past to generate a vision of the future.

This is why I suggest that prison population forecasting is like walking up a hill backwards: looking down the slope you have come up is a strange way of figuring out when you will hit the peak. It is no wonder that prison projections regularly get it wrong, failing to anticipate the unprecedented explosion of the penal system beginning in the late 1990s in England and Wales (when projections based on 1980s growth suggested populations would stabilise or fall), or the surprising decline of America’s world beating prison numbers in 2007/2008.

The reason for the title is that predicting the future of prison populations also has been a way of imposing coherence on the past, turning jagged spikes and dips into an even rate of growth. In this sense forecasting models absorb isolated and extreme events spreading their impact evenly across the past. It is like averaging deaths during a few peak years of the Great Plague over a century. Instead of an extraordinary moment in human history standing out, we see an unremarkable annual loss of life over a long period.

A real danger is that we build prisons to suit the projections (and this looks to be happening with the revived Titan Prisons programme down south) rather than our values about the role and quantity of punishment in society. There is growing evidence that prisons themselves ‘cause’ prisoners, that as prison spaces are created, the larger the total population gets. Prison forecasts then are at risk of triggering a self-fulfilling prophecy by encouraging capital expansion that is then filled in a dystopian version of Field of Dreams – if you build it, they will come.

We know that Scotland uses prison much more actively than its small country neighbours and we also know that high prison populations are associated with reduced social investment and welfare. Rather than letting prison forecasts become a self-fulfilling prophecy, perhaps we should read them as an indictment of our current practices. And if we dare to question the right of a straight line to tell us our destiny, we might reclaim the future as something we select rather than predict.

This blog was written by Dr Sarah Armstrong, a Senior Research Fellow in Glasgow University and the SCCJR. Her research interests revolve around prisons and punishment: policy processes that shape and sustain them


*The full version of this essay appears in Issue 3 of Scottish Justice Matters ( )

Scottish Government (2012), Prison statistics and population projections Scotland, 2011-12 (29 June 2012). Online at: