What society needs to learn from people with convictions

Clinks, an organisation that supports voluntary organisations working with ‘offenders’ and their families issued a call for responses to this question: “What do offenders, prisoners and ex-offenders need to learn?”. It will publish responses sometime in 2017. SPARC has submitted a response as follows…

We are not children who “need to learn”.

The question that is put out for response – “What do offenders, prisoners and ex-offenders need to learn?” – insinuates that as a group there are things we ‘need’ to be taught. Not only is this framing of inquiry slightly offensive, it has authoritarian and paternalistic overtones that keep us in our place at the bottom of society where we need constant interventions into our lives. The invitation to hear from those with first-hand experience as ‘prisoners and ex-offenders’ is welcome, but risks itself becoming a means of re-drawing a line between an ‘us’ and ‘them’. Even well-intentioned efforts to help others can be a way of othering and demonising, rather than humanising people. There is a long-standing tradition in penal practice, research and reform of infantilising and denying the agency of those involved in criminal justice. We have re-framed the question to support our position that user voices should not be used just to gain information (to support development of services or better rates of rehabilitation) but should help shape the very debate over reform itself and what the problems of punishment are.

What society would benefit from considering is what people in the system themselves want to move their lives forward. The majority of us feel that support, understanding and guidance would serve both people with convictions and the tax paying public better, in the place of constant interventions delivered from above. Too many services are organised around one size fits all diagnosis of what people need. By ignoring the individual realities of a person’s situation, and their own ideas about the kind of support they need, means that any help becomes prescriptive and reinforces the idea that people are not capable of taking control of their own lives in positive ways.

What we have found has helped us the most both in prison and on our journey out, is the help and understanding on a personal level from those who treated us as people, and as adults, no different from themselves – with strengths, flaws, goals and vulnerabilities. Meaningful, genuine encounters – 15 minutes with a member of staff listening and hearing you – has had a more real, positive and powerful impact than ‘offender change’ programmes, which officially document our rehabilitation.

Prisons and contact with the criminal justice system is inherently damaging.

Prisons are inherently damaging places to be, both for the people locked in them as well as the family they leave behind. Ideas of prisons as holiday camps has taken hold in the media and in public imagination whilst the idea of a loss of freedom remains too abstract. It’s not what we’re given in prison that should be the focus of concern, but the fact that these things – whether tellys or Xboxes or DVDs – do not compensate for what is taken away. Taken away from family and friends, from our lives on the outside, but also taken away from a sense of normality and autonomy and placed in an institution where just about every dynamic is about control and disempowerment. These losses de-skill and dehumanise us, yet these skills and this sense of self-efficacy are the main sources we need for support on release. That is, ‘reintegration’ support is needed because of the effects of prison itself, and criminal justice, on people. Too often, reintegration is treated as a reflection of an individual’s deficits, as if committing an offence demonstrates complete incapacity in all areas – to maintain family relationships, housing, a job.

The public read about a prison that we have never experienced – where life is like a holiday camp and you get to do whatever you want. Not only do the tabloid media get it wrong, for their own reasons, but prison services often mislead about how ‘normal’ life on the inside is.

Prisons are not filled with the country’s most dangerous criminals.

Whilst imprisonment is admittedly necessary in any civilised society in order to lock up those who have committed the most damaging, serious forms of harm – it has turned out to be a dumping ground for those of us society has failed. It has become a waste management solution where the lowest of the low in society can be dumped, rather than dealing with wider social problems of poor quality jobs, inadequate housing, and lack of mental health support. Crime is at an all-time low, yet our prisons are still overcrowded – with one in three males accruing a criminal conviction in Scotland and one in four in England and Wales. How can this be? Society needs to consider its culpability in the failure of so many of its citizens, and appreciate that prison could, and does, happen to anyone – we are more alike than we are different.

We have a civic future if prisons and society allows us the time, space and capacity to do work towards it.

Research on education and democracy shows that by helping someone build their educational attainment they are more inclined to take part in valued aspects of community activities. Participating in society this way is clearly a factor in reducing offending, but reduced reoffending, we believe, should not be the main aim of education, or of education in prison. Education is a prerequisite of robust democratic societies; reduced reoffending is the happy by-product of this. Civic participation increases as levels of education increases – especially liberal arts forms of learning, which encourage freethinking, creativity, empathy and curiosity. Societies and prisons need to learn that we are not all in need of basic literacy and numeracy courses, or employability skills courses (which lead neither to qualifications or actual jobs). And society needs to learn that prisons often use opportunities like education (as well as family visits) as a carrot and stick to ensure disciplinary compliance in prison. Personally we have heard people complain about prisoners getting an education amongst other things, even people close to us that qualify their comments with – but you’re different because you’re doing so well.

The attitude of politicians towards people with convictions gaining any kind of civic identity can be illustrated by former Prime Minister David Cameron’s comments regarding prisoner voting, the very thought of which apparently made him ‘physically sick’. Never mind that the UK has been in violation of European rulings since 2005 for its blanket ban on prisoner voting. This sends a clear message that people with convictions are not welcome as full citizens – despite the rhetoric about rehabilitation. We also reject the idea that we are not citizens when we enter prison, and that prison can act as a ‘citizen recovery’ service, as it has been touted by the current head of Scottish prisons. We do not lose our status as human beings, adults and citizens by having convictions.

How academia, the media and the public interact with people with convictions matter.

Questions like the one posed for this paper show how even third sector and academic attitudes towards people with convictions are entrenched with negative assumptions. These assumptions are based on the belief that people with convictions are all stupid individuals who are one intervention away from being taught that our way of living is wrong and we can be saved from a life of crime. We reject such infantilising and patronising thinking, which sadly is embedded in much of what we have read about desistance models. The media continue to run stories about the ned – the chav, the neet – who is forever causing trouble wherever he goes due to his low level of intelligence and lack of respect for society. This is eaten up by the public who according to the media are outraged at the luxury we live in when in prison and the opportunities we are given. Society needs to learn that some of us have caused the worst possible harm to others and to society, and having been through this, we are now seeking meaningful ways to re-join and contribute to our communities. We cannot do this when we are disempowered, pitied, de-skilled, de-humanised and told by others what it is we need to learn.






‘Life means life’ call ignores the reality of sentencing

As with most notorious crimes that make the headlines, politicians can’t help but take part in some political point scoring. Ruth Davidson is no exception, and her call for whole- life tariffs after a successful sentence appeal in a harrowing murder case is quite opportunistic. This blog will briefly comment on three issues of this debate – judicial independence and the importance of avoiding undue political influence, how this debate fits in with international norms, and the current position in Scotland concerning life prisoners.

Western democracies consider judicial independence a fundamental and essential element of any free society. Political interventions into sentencing create unnecessary and undesirable interference with the judiciary’s proper consideration of the law and facts of a case. To maintain public confidence and integrity in the legal process, the constitutional guarantee of a fair trial and being treated fairly under the law requires that the judiciary and politics be kept separate. This means that within set legal limits, judges should be left to decide sentence length based on the facts of a case and its compatibility with judicial policy, international norms and convention rights.

The constitutional guarantee of a fair trial and being treated fairly under the law requires that the judiciary and politics be kept separate

Moreover, the debate surrounding ‘life-means-life’ sentences is misleading. Across Europe there are no such sentences without a mandatory review period set by law within each individual state. For example, 16 European countries set this period at approximately 25 years. Most other European countries allow considerably less time in prison before review is required, with 13 EU countries setting this at 15 years or less before the review mechanism kicks in[1]. So even with a ‘life-means-life’ tariff, it is likely Scotland would follow suit and have a review mechanism protected by statute. The only question remaining would be which sentencing policy we would follow. Either way, life still doesn’t particularly mean life.

There are other ways that life sentences are misleading. Prior to 2001[2], life-serving prisoners were not given a minimum sentence in Scotland. This was viewed as being incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights and has since been rectified so that in Scotland, a judge must always set a minimum term. However, even when a minimum term is set, a life serving prisoner can still spend countless years, sometimes decades, beyond their tariff without ever committing another crime. Simple compliance with the prison regime is now no longer enough to secure progression or release (Crewe 2011)[3]; and our experience suggests that sentence progression is characterised by discretionary, subjective and non-judicial decision-making. For example, progression and release can be denied as a consequence of having a “bad attitude” or around concerns that post-release goals may be unrealistic. The most common reason, however, is the failure to abstain from taking drugs. Not only does this amount to criminalising addiction, but it is not uncommon that the addiction was acquired by the prisoner whilst serving their sentence, often to cope with prison itself.

Even when a minimum term is set, a life serving prisoner can still spend countless years, sometimes decades, beyond their tariff without ever committing another crime

Some might find this fair enough – if you can’t stop taking drugs you should not be allowed in society – except it is now widely accepted that drug addiction should be treated as a health issue and not a criminal justice problem. So effectively in Scotland we appear to be against whole-life tariffs, or at least tariffs without a designated time for sentence review, however we allow people to spend decades in prison for what is effectively a health problem.

The Scottish Conservatives might want to consult some hard data rather than the alternative facts of tabloid headlines about ‘soft touch’ Scotland. There has been a steady decrease in most crimes for years (and a sharp drop in the number of homicides, from 117 in 2011 to 59 in 2016), but sentence lengths are increasing. The average tariff for a life sentenced prisoner in 2000 was 10 years; by 2014, the average tariff had increased 38% to more than 14 years. Sentences are getting longer, and we are beginning to see more and more sentences of two decades or more. Despite Scotland’s sense of itself as less punitive than its neighbour to the south, its sentencing is moving more in the direction of its neighbour to the west, across the Atlantic.

Sentences are getting longer, and we are beginning to see more and more sentences of two decades or more … what social benefit is achieved by doubling or even tripling sentence length?

In addition to asking why sentences are already increasing so much, we should be asking what social benefit is achieved by doubling or even tripling sentence length? After about ten years or so prisoners will have done every programme, taken every course, worked every job in a prison. After that, those faced with another decade or two of incarceration will have very little to engage them, to give them hope and to provide the motivation needed to re-join and participate as positive members of communities.


This blog appeared as a guest post by SPARC for the SCCJR 

[1] (Vinters and Others v The United Kingdom 2003 at 68).

[2] Convention Rights (Compliance) (Scotland) Act 2001

[3] Crewe, B. (2011) ‘Soft power in prison: Implications for staff-prisoner relationships, liberty and legitimacy’, European Journal of Criminology 8(6) 455-468


Increasing Length of Long Term Sentences

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Health Inequalities in Scottish Prisons

SPARC recently responded to the Health and Sport Committee’s call for responses to contribute to their current inquiry into healthcare provision in Scotland.

  1. What do you consider are the current pressures on health and social care provision in prisons?
  2. How well do you consider that these pressures have been responded to?

In general, the move from SPS healthcare provision to the NHS has been a positive development as it moves Scotland towards a vision of the person imprisoned as a full and equal member of Scottish society, with the same rights to care as anyone else. However, evidence to date suggests that in practice this commitment has not been realised. Here we refer to the Royal College of Nursing Scotland’s comprehensive review of this transfer Five Years On (2016). We are sure the Committee is fully aware of this report but we wish to be added to the voices of those seeking for its powerful findings to be taken into account. We find its method and approach robust in flagging up key issues in provision of health and social care for those in prison.

The key pressures this report identifies, and which is consistent with our own experiences and awareness of the research relate to:

  • An inability to adopt a prevention focus due to extensive staff time devoted to medication management of those in prison;
  • Lack of continuity in care before, during, and following a prison sentence impacting on the cost effectiveness and efficiency of health care delivery in prison;
  • Relatedly, this finding suggests more than coordination issues between SPS and NHS staff but a more fundamental need to understand and address possible organisational culture differences between health and punishment sectors – from experience we have seen ‘prison security’ and prison personnel staffing issues affect medical delivery (for example, the timings of medication rounds is a direct function of prison and NHS staff shift times and prisoners may receive an evening dose at 4 in the afternoon on weekends, when prison staff levels means after this many are locked in cells). In addition, NHS staff should never, under any circumstances, be required to provide medical interventions to primarily support SPS security and control, this violates the principles of equitable medical care and erodes trust between prisoners and medical staff. Nor should medical staff prescriptions or treatment plans be amended post hoc by SPS. Instances of both have been seen or experienced by members of this group;
  • Finally, staffing levels and pressure generally on staff emerged as a consistent finding and one which requires consideration to maximise optimising health care, outcomes, prevention focus and effectiveness and efficiency issues; however, a core concern of our collective is to ensure that problems within the prison system do not become arguments for expanding the prison system or expanding the prison’s budget compared to other settings where health and other outcomes (i.e. the community) are better supported. Hence, we express concern about the repeated use in the RCNS report of the idea that ‘prison offers the best chance of catching people’ and addressing their health needs. Prison is never the best place to work with people, all other factors remaining equal.
  • Lack of data and understanding of health issues and provision gaps: The RCN wrote that: ‘It is not possible to evidence the impact that the transfer has made on tackling health inequalities and addressing the health care needs of people in prison. This is because there are still some gaps in our understanding of people’s health needs in the criminal justice system and a lack of national reporting and quality outcomes data for prison health care’. An annual prison health report on the existing health inequalities, systemic improvements and kinds of provisions that make up the NHS work, e.g. budgets, would be useful to ensure continual prioritisation and awareness of the issues. The Government needs also to demonstrate more explicitly how prison healthcare is integrated in their national vision of stronger, safer, fairer and healthier Scotland. Therefore, prison healthcare must be recognised as a distinct area of service provision within the long-term strategic plans for Scottish health. Finally, the lack of data reflects wider gaps and progressive loss in knowledge: for example, the most recent published statistics on the prison population date from 2013-14 (with significant disinvestment of resource in producing official statistics on prison populations in Scotland in the past 10-15 years). Effective policy making and transparent democracies require clear and open understandings of who is imprisoned, where, why and for how long. We are concerned that prison healthcare will fall under the same opaque reportage and loss of public oversight.

The fact that 66 deaths in prison custody since 2013 remain undetermined (SPS website) receives far too little Government and policy scrutiny despite extensive recent media coverage:

Staffing and other resource issues likely play into this, but we challenge those concerned with the health and social care of those in prison to prioritise explaining, resolving and providing closure to families of people who die in state custody.

We are not aware of national reporting on prison healthcare and would welcome some mechanism for this. However, we also worry about the emphasis in the RCN report on inadequate assessment of health needs. While we welcome better understanding of these needs, it is important to set this in the context of extensive, almost relentless and often dehumanising assessment processes in prison where people are regularly required to recount multiple times issues of deep personal concern such as personal traumas, drug and alcohol issues, literacy issues, abuse issues and more. We urge a focus on care, prevention and positive, supportive relationships with professionals over endless inquiries (often in front of multiple strangers) in order to achieve perfect recordkeeping.

  1. To what extent do you believe that health inequalities are/could be addressed in the prison healthcare system?
  2. What are the current barriers to using the prison healthcare system/ improve the health outcomes of the prison population?

Health inequalities cannot be addressed effectively when health is viewed as a factor in reduced offending: The new NHS model of prison healthcare has sometimes been presented and justified as an improved form of medical provision primarily because it will help with reducing reoffending[1]. This directly undermines an agenda of reducing health inequalities because it implicitly values NHS provision in prison mainly in terms of its contribution to crime reduction. Healthcare, whether in prison or anywhere else, should be discussed only in terms of treating people who are in need, supporting citizens and improving health and wellbeing in Scotland in general. Prison healthcare should be motivated by the same ethos and vision as the recent National Clinical Strategy for Scotland which stated that: ‘Quality must be the primary concern – all developments should seek to ensure that there is enhancement of patient safety, clinical effectiveness and a person-centred approach to care’[2]. A key challenge to rectifying health inequalities, therefore, is the dominant ethos of the prison system in which all services delivered in this setting are assessed instrumentally in terms of reoffending outcome measures.

Health inequalities cannot be effectively addressed without recognising the harms of prison itself: Prisons, no matter how well they are run or designed, are innately damaging. Reviews of research suggest that time in prison is itself damaging to cognitive function[3]. Research on Scotland by Prof Lesley Graham has further established that those who are in prison have higher mortality rates, of two to more nearly six times higher, than those in the general population, even when controlling for social deprivation[4]. Such work establishes, unsurprisingly, that confinement of human beings is deeply damaging, and this damage should be carefully considered. A discourse has emerged of talking about people in prison as having lower cognitive function, greater health needs, more chaotic lives and so on; and while this may have some evidential support, it diminishes those in prison as a damaged ‘them’ and obscures the extent to which being in prison itself is a health risk and a mortality risk.

Importantly, this risk to health and wellbeing extend beyond the person in custody.  Drawing on large-scale US survey data, Wakefield and Wildeman found that the prison has become an institution which creates and reinforces deep social inequalities, increasing the risks of poor mental health, homelessness and infant mortality for children of an incarcerated parent[5].  While imprisonment rates in Scotland are not comparable with America’s “prison boom”, it is nonetheless clear that supporting a person in custody requires large investments of time, emotional support and financial resources from some of Scotland’s poorest families and communities.  Positioning families as a source of support to render prisons more “survivable” is therefore at odds with adopting a prevention focus or reducing wider health inequalities.

Health inequalities, therefore, cannot be addressed effectively until the harms of prison are addressed, and this includes taking into account Scotland’s high imprisonment rates in policy making and reform. This point also emphasises why we should never talk about prison as ‘being the best chance’ to deliver any public service. If the prison system operated adopted a Hippocratic oath, we would have strong doubts that it is achieving this.

[1] E.g. Michael Matheson: ‘However, factors outside of the control of the criminal justice system affect reoffending. The work of this group has found that reoffending is a complex social issue and there are well established links between persistent offending, poverty, homelessness, addiction and mental illness. When transitioning from custody to the community, gaps in access to vital support services and basic needs can hamper attempts to desist from offending’

[2] National Clinical Strategy for Scotland, February 2016:2

[3] Meijers J, Harte JM, Jonker FA and Meynen G (2015). Prison brain? Executive dysfunction in prisoners. Front. Psychol. 6:43. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00043

[4]Justice Committee, Transfer of prison healthcare to the NHS Written, submission from Dr Lesley Graham:

[5] Wakefield, S. and Wildeman, C. 2014 Children of the prison boom: Mass incarceration and the future of American inequality. New York, NY: Oxford University Press