Can Prison Work?

The Glasgow Skeptics invited Vice-Convener of HLS, Prof Richard Sparks, to give a talk, Can Prison Work? Professor Sparks, a Professor of Criminology at the University of Edinburgh, gives his talk a Scottish focus - asking what is prison for? Can hope for more? Does it matter what the stated aims of imprisonment are? Does it matter who runs the prisons? Are all prisons basically alike?

Watch the talk here: Can Prison Work?

People in prison: a snapshot

Almost two-thirds of those taking part in the 2013 prisoner survey reported having children (63%). Of these, two in five (42%) had one child and just under a third had two children (31%). A quarter (24%) of prisoners thought that they would not be caring for their children when they were released, while 17% of prisoners did not know.

Nearly half of prisoners surveyed reported being drunk at the time of their offence (45%). One in five reported that drinking affected their ability to hold down a job (21%) and over one-third of prisoners admitted that their drinking affected their relationship with their family (35%)

A higher proportion of women reported problems with alcohol, with half (50%) reporting being drunk at the time of their offence—an 8% increase on 2011. Over half (53%) said that they would drink 10 or more drinks on a typical day when drinking, with 29% saying they drank six or more drinks on a daily, or almost daily, basis.

Two-thirds (68%) of young offenders reported being drunk at the time of their offence. 39% of prisoners reported being under the influence of drugs at the time of their offence, with 16% reporting that they committed their offence to get money for drugs.

Two-thirds (62%) reported using drugs in the 12 months prior to coming into prison. Cannabis (78%), benzodiazepams (58%) and cocaine (51%) were the most commonly used drugs.

Eight in ten (79%) young people in prison reported that they had used drugs in the 12 months prior to coming into prison and half (49%) were under the influence of drugs at the time of the offence.

A quarter of prisoners reported that they had taken another prisoner’s prescribed medication at some point during their time in prison.

One-quarter reported having a disability (25%), an increase of six per cent from 2011 (19%), with 68% of these stating that staff in their prison know they have a disability. Just over one third (36%) of older prisoners stated that they had a disability.

A quarter (25%) of young people in prison surveyed had no qualifications. Over half (56%) said that they were ‘often’ excluded from school and four in ten (37%) said that they had ‘often’ attended a Children’s Panel.

Just over a third of respondents to a Prison Reform Trust survey of prisons in Scotland in 2007 said that their prison had a dedicated learning disability nurse.

There were 1,822 recorded ‘minor & no injury’ prisoner on prisoner assaults in Scottish prisons in 2013–14, a 5% rise on the previous year. The number of serious assaults remained stable at 71.

85% of prisoners reported positively on the ability to arrange visits and 84% on access to family and friends. However, 57% reported that their visitors experienced problems when visiting them in prison, most frequently the distance of the prison from their home (61%) and the cost involved in getting to the prison (57%).

A greater number of older prisoners (18%) had no regular contact with their family and friends than younger prisoners (9%).

One-quarter of prisoners indicated that during their up-bringing they had been in care (27%).

Over half of women reporting had witnessed violence between their parents/carers when they were children (56%) compared to four in ten male prisoners (41%).

59% prisoners surveyed reported they were a lodger before going to prison, and 34% were a council tenant. Half of prisoners who specified said that they lost their tenancy/accommodation when they went to prison (49%).

The women’s prison population in Scotland increased 66% in the ten years since 2002-03.There has been a slight decrease with an average daily prison population of 431 women in 2013–14, 26 fewer than the year before.

The proportion of prisoners on remand is higher for women than men (23% compared to 19%). Only around 30% of women on remand go on to receive a custodial sentence.

In 2011–12, 1,979 women were received into custody on remand, 5% higher than the previous year. The number of women remanded to custody almost doubled between 1999–2000 and 2008–09 (from 1,176 to 2,338).

There is evidence that women are being imprisoned for longer periods of time. Research by the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research (SCCJR) found that the average length of custodial sentences imposed on women increased from 228 days in 1999–2000 to 271 in 2008–09. This difference is largely explained by the significant increase in the number of women sentenced to between six months and two years.

The report found no evidence of increasing participation in crime by women. Data from five police forces showed that the number of recorded crimes involving females has remained relatively stable between 1999–2000 and 2009–10, with some fluctuations in the Strathclyde and Fife area.

SCCJR analyses suggest that the growth in the women’s prison population can more likely be attributed to the increasing use of custodial sentences by courts than changes in the pattern of female offending.

A higher proportion of women commit ‘crimes of dishonesty’ than men. In 2012–13, 11% of proven offences by women were for shoplifting, compared with 6% of men.

According to Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill, two-thirds of the women at Cornton Vale, Scotland’s only all-women prison, were serving sentences of six months or less. Commenting on this, MacAskill said they had “typically been jailed for low level offences ... four out of five women going to Cornton Vale have a mental health problem and seven out of 10 have a disclosed history of abuse or trauma ... so while the staff at Cornton Vale are doing a fantastic job, a short-term prison environment is not always conducive to identifying root problems and dealing with them effectively.”

A report by the Commission on Women Offenders, chaired by former Lord Advocate, Dame Elish Angiolini, stated that “Cornton Vale is not fit for purpose.” It recommended that it is replaced with a smaller specialist prison for those women offenders serving a statutory defined long-term sentence and those who present a significant risk to the public.

In March 2014, a 50-place regional unit opened at HMP Grampian for women from the north east of Scotland.A Regional Unit in Edinburgh is planned for women from the east and south-east. A 350 place women’s prison is planned near Greenock to replace HMP Cornton Vale at an estimated cost of £60m.

Specialist services designed to meet the complex needs of women offenders can help them to tackle the causes of their offending. Women who used the services at the 218 Service in Glasgow identified significant decreases in drug and/or alcohol use (83%), improvements in their health and wellbeing (67%), access to stable accommodation and referrals to longer-term support services.

Via The Bromley Briefings


Scottish Prison Population May 2014

SCCJR Report on Training for SPS Staff

The work of prison officers is often a delicate balancing act. They must find the measure between the over-arching security concerns of their work as well as manage the often personal and supportive roles they take on with prisoners. If we are interested in transforming prisons, then we must also take interest in prison staff. As a recent  snapshot on prison officer research from the SCCJR states, people 'have all too often expended relatively little effort or imagination in grasping their position and its challenges'. 

The SCCJR have recently published their Annual Report, April 2013-March 2014. One of their many projects includes 'Developing a Professional Qualification for Scottish Prison Service: A Report on Exploratory Work'. The research was commissioned in the wake of the promising and ambitious SPS Organizational Review, 'Unlocking Potential, Transforming Lives', which illustrated a desire to develop prison service staff training and skills. 176 interviews were conducted with prison staff in all of Scotland's prisons to give voice to their views, concerns and hopes for the proposed changes in professional training.


  • Some staff, particularly long-serving staff, were dubious professional training will enhance their working lives;
  • Others believed it was a beneficial suggestion, but doubted it would come to fruition;
  • The majority of staff embraced the idea of increased education and professional qualifications for prison staff;
  • The key areas identified by staff as requiring development were 'people skills, 'dealing with people' and 'insight';
  • The majority of staff were positive about engaging in more mentoring style relationships with prisoners.


  • Develop an externally credible course;
  • Develop core modules which 'would involve values, standards and behaviours as well as knowledge and understanding';
  • Opportunities for specialised training;
  • Encourage and make possible continued professional development.

For more from the SCCJR read here

Tom Halpin, Sacro - Women's Penal Policy

Women offenders: ‘From where I stand…’

This blog is part of a series considering developments two years on from the publication of the report by the Commission on Women Offenders. Tom Halpin, Chief Executive, SACRO and Chair of the Shine partnership, offers his perspective:

The Commission on Women Offenders Report was not a ‘wake up’ call, it was a long needed ‘holding to account’ for us all.

Today, the report card for work done to meet the Commission’s recommendations reads ‘making good progress, but still needs to focus on outcomes’.

This last year has definitely been about delivering the services that women need. Public Social Partnerships are an emerging model for designing and delivering these services. Shine Women’s Mentoring Service is now providing personal mentors to support women on a one-to-one basis with the issues many face in the community. After a period in custody, it is a difficult time for anyone and often it is not easy to access services.

For women, these issues are emotionally significant; frequently further damaging already low self-esteem. The Shine mentor will talk these things through with a woman in prison and then remain with her on release to give support both practically and emotionally for a minimum of six months. This support is designed to rebuild self-esteem and make the change needed on a personal journey to a life without offending. This is the outcome we all must support through the services we provide. It is too early to write the final report card, but progress is good.

Mentoring support is now firmly established across all Scotland’s communities and available for women leaving prison. We are also making progress supporting women on remand. This is an anomaly where the disproportionately high numbers compared to men on remand needs to be scrutinised further.

Along with other established mentoring initiatives, Shine is working with the women’s justice centres and linked services to ensure the woman’s journey is supported and joined up.

Individual testimonies from women who engage with Shine are overwhelmingly positive and provide confidence that Angiolini’s recommendation for mentoring support is the right response. Testimonies like that of Miss L, who stated that having a mentor to talk to has helped her think about the consequences of her actions and given her confidence in her ability to adhere to her plans to stop offending. She was delighted to tell her mentor that when a drug dealer had visited her home and offered her drugs, Miss L refused the offer and told him to leave and never come back.

Importantly, this is also about those dedicated workers and volunteers who support women on their journey to desistance from offending. A crucial element of the response to the Commission has been how the workforce is developing. Collaboration between public, private and third sector staff and volunteers is frankly inspirational. Building a common understanding of what mentoring support is, establishing practice standards to safeguard all and sharing learning for the benefit of women.

Scotland has responded to the Commission and is holding itself to account. But the final report grade will depend on the outcomes we achieve. There are still too many women in prison, particularly on remand.

Too many women still find themselves in the margins having difficulty accessing services like housing and health, particularly in relation to mental health.

So long as we continue to stay alert, our next report should read ‘very good and outcomes are being achieved’.









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