Scottish Prisoner Advocacy and Research Collective


September 2017

SPARC is a research and advocacy collective who campaign for reform in the use of imprisonment. Our method is political and academic, drawing on rigorous research and insider perspectives of prisons in Scotland to reduce excessive use of punishment.

Who we are: SPARC comprises people inside and outside of prisons who are researchers, social justice advocates and people with experience of imprisonment. The diversity of our perspectives has been missing in contemporary prison debates, as has a grassroots strategy of pursuing penal change. These both are necessary for achieving meaningful penal reform in Scotland.

Why prison reform?: Scotland has one of the highest imprisonment rates in western Europe, despite the absence of evidence demonstrating that the use of imprisonment reduces crime or makes community safer. Moreover, prison is an inherently harmful institution: it damages imprisoned people; it disrupts and burdens their families; it disintegrates communities. An excessive reliance upon imprisonment undermines civic life, and many damaging aspects of life in prison remain hidden from public view. Therefore, its use must be regularly scrutinized, reviewed and justified.

What we do: We conduct research and advocacy through collective action. Our work aims to expose injustices within the prison system and highlight alternative practices which can contribute to a more socially just Scotland.


SPARC formed in 2016 out of a group of those based in universities and in prisons meeting through peer educational activities  who discovered a shared interest in researching, exposing and addressing the problems of punishment, and particularly of imprisonment. Positioned in different parts of prisons and universities, we recognised we had common concerns about power and hierarchy in institutions. We also found common ground in a shared passion and belief in the power of high quality education to change ourselves and the world for the better. SPARC gained focus and purpose in our first conference paper, in early 2017, writing about the transformative potential, and risks, of universities and prisons coming together to advance education.

Around the time of SPARC’s formation, some of us were also learning about convict criminology and the tradition of political activism it drew on or led to, such as prisoner-led collectives that challenged structural injustice including the Black Panthers’ provision of their own education in American prisons, and KROM, a Norwegian based collective of academics and prisoners. Others of us had already been involved in activism and reform involvement related to prisons as well as working conditions of universities.

Our aims and values

As people interested in issues surrounding imprisonment from different perspectives, we aim to connect research and personal experience to build understanding of penal practices, curtail abuse and support positive institutional change. The focus of our experience and action is Scotland, but we seek to connect to global debates and research on imprisonment, and to build international solidarity through our work. These connections are crucial at a time of widening global inequality and converging similarity in the unequal distribution of punishment to those in the least advantaged positions in society, including those experiencing poverty or having minority ethnic/national status.

A core value for us is collective action. Through this we bring in voices of those most affected by and excluded from penal policy: prisoners, families and communities. We do not feel it is enough to write about these groups, nor do we believe that occasional inclusion of a user voice is enough to fully appreciate the effects of punishment in society, or to produce fundamental change. Just societies are inclusive societies, and only through genuine and substantive involvement of all can we envision and work towards true change.

Collective action means we work together as equals in everything we do, side by side, recognising that our diverse experiences, and the different points of access and understandings this affords us are crucial to identifying the need for and grounds of change. Working together in this way also is a means of practicing the democratic citizenship we strive towards. It reflects our shared humanity and our common interest in struggles for justice.

We will work to document otherwise hidden practices and consequences of punishment; to develop understanding of penal excesses as a problem for all in society; to connect issues of unjust punishment to other forms of injustice. We are committed to doing this through rigorous high quality research and through building capacity and awareness among people that will support broad-based, grassroots action.

The necessity of punishment, the harm of prison

There may be attempts to reduce our work to ‘sympathizing with criminals’ or pushing for ‘soft punishment’; neither of these are valid critiques. To be clear, we believe all societies require means of responding to serious harm, including punishment. Punishment is a necessary function of just societies, and punishment necessarily involves pain.

Imprisonment is inherently harmful, and inflicts damage on all who pass through it, and also often their families and communities. Its use as punishment, therefore, requires careful understanding of what these harms are so that its use is carefully judged and justified. We believe that whatever punishment a society inflicts, it should not disable or permanently disempower a person from participating productively in society.

Issues we will work on

Below is a non-exhaustive list of the issues we have identified as priorities in our work.

  • Citizenship: Challenging prison as a loss of citizenship; re-thinking the conceptualization of punishment and citizenship.
  • Education: The power of good quality education in prison as well as in society generally, and forms of education which are truly transformational.
  • Health care, mental health and substance issues: including how these relate to penal power and may be commandeered as a tool for surveillance.
  • Family life and relationships: challenging the view of family relationships primarily in terms of supporting instrumental penal goals or as a form of surveillance and control; resisting infantilizing and normative discourses of family.
  • Privacy: Recognising the privacy rights of the punished and their families; exposing micro and macro invasions of privacy that undermine personal autonomy and dignity.
  • Racism, sexism and classism: in the distribution and practice of punishment.
  • Unemployment and underemployment: among penal populations, examining and documenting the extent to which penal systems contribute to this.
  • Homelessness and housing: and the contribution of prison to these problems.
  • Media: misrepresentation and sensationalism of how prisons work and who is imprisoned.
  • Security and risk assessment: examining practices of security and risk assessment; challenging the use of security arguments as trump cards for defeating legitimate challenges to state and penal power.
  • Community and society: understanding the wider connections to and impact of penal practices on neighbourhoods, communities, societies and nations.
  • Broadening the criminal justice debate: creating a platform for the individuals and communities who are most impacted by criminal justice policy, but who are rarely given opportunities to be heard in these debates.