Prisoners cannot wait: acting now will save lives

Yesterday, the Scottish Government has released a Covid-19 related Bill. Amongst other issues, the Bill set out (inSchedule 4, Part 9, subsection 4) provisional rules on the early release of prisoners in Scotland and was debated in Parliament yesterday.

Within the Bill it stated that Ministers should be able to sanction the early release of people residing in prison if they deem it a “necessary and proportionate” action to help mitigate current or future impacts of the coronavirus. Early release would be enacted, if necessary, to firstly: protect the security and running of prisons and secondly: safeguard the health, safety, and welfare of people living and working in the prisons.

After the debate on this legislation, SPARC are stunned that Government have refused to make prisoners a priority and to treat them as equal human beings. The necessary legislation required to reduce the prison population and save lives is still seen as ‘a measure of last resort’, revealing the limits and meaning of justice in Scotland.

From our understanding, it’ll be three weeks at the earliest before the necessary secondary legislation to release prisoners can be considered. Over the last three weeks, the UK went from 8 deaths to 2,352, and there have been dramatic changes in public life. To leave prisoners waiting this long is to ignore everything we now know about this virus. This inaction verges on being reckless: It will mean a death sentence for some.

This also ignores the fact that viruses spread more rapidly in confined environments. This means that prisoners and prison staff health is being put at risk if we do not reduce the levels of incarceration in Scotland. For justice to mean anything the release of prisoners needs immediate action.

The Government noted that these are “extraordinary measures required to respond to an emergency situation” and explicitly stated, within the policy memorandum, that new legislation was necessary because existing mechanisms for releasing people in custody are not appropriate. However, we would argue that there are still existing options which need to be considered and acted upon now. For example, current legislations state that bail can currently be granted in Scotland for any remand prisoner at any stage pre-trial without the need for additional legislation. Given that remand prisoners account for almost 20% of the prison population and 54% of these individuals are being held for non-violent offences we urge the government to begin looking at their release.

We also know that despite overly cautious and risk averse guidance to the use of Home Detention Curfew (HDC) this is an option that would allow SG to act now. The Scottish Government should be doing everything in their power to increase its use. We know that over 20,000 people have been released on HDC licences since 2006 with a successful completion rate of around 80%. In this current time of crisis, that this mechanism has not been expanded is inexplicable.

The Scottish Government has also rejected the use of temporary release on the grounds that people liberated in this way cannot access the benefits system. This is undoubtedly an important point: releasing people with no means to support themselves is not in their interests, or in the interests of their families and communities. Making early release contingent on family support risks placing considerable pressure on families at home. However, Castle Huntly, Scotland’s only open prison, has a capacity of 285 men. The majority of these will already be receiving regular home leave, they will have been thoroughly risk assessed and have ongoing social work involvement. SPARC advocate a targeted use of resources to extend these periods of release of people in Castle Huntly, which will free up desperately required space inside the prison system.

This is urgent. But what are the barriers to making the necessary releases possible? The only risk being accounted for right now is the risk to the public and community from crime. The Scottish Government must move their thinking forward, to see people in prison not only in terms of the risk they create for others, but the risk they are forced into because of Scotland’s overcrowded prison conditions. People cannot wait, acting now will save lives.


SPARC statement on COVID 19 – Friday 27 March 2020

  1. SPARC is deeply troubled about the lack of speed and clarity about the response to Covid 19 in Scottish prisons. While the pandemic is evolving rapidly, we remain concerned that the response from the SPS and Scottish Government has not. There appears to have been little meaningful progress since our statement of Tuesday 17th March, where we outlined serious concerns and made a number of urgent recommendations, not least the call for publication of a clear, detailed plan.
  1. We would view a satisfactory plan as one that includes: information for families about testing, isolation protocols for the unwell (including how family can receive updates on those isolated); details of modes and frequency of maintaining family contact; appropriate and specific policies applying to different prisons given distinct populations (such as much older age groups in Glenochil, mixed gender and ages in other prisons); accessible and accurate information about crowding and issues in establishments, such as the availability of phones, soap, hand sanitiser and other toiletries for all prisoners regardless of income.
  1. The need for action could not be more urgent given the current crisis inside Scottish prisons, which provides a perfect environment for the virus to spread. Prisons are overcrowded, and prison numbers significantly above the estate’s operational capacity. Many people held in Scottish prisons suffer poor health, and are consequently more likely to be vulnerable to the virus. Yet, there is little space to self-isolate, as many prisoners are already sharing a cell.
  1. Further, self-isolating in a prison environment may be detrimental to mental health, which is already a particular concern in prison, as we know contact with family and other supportive individuals can protect against the risk of suicide. This point has been unaddressed in official responses to date.
  1. On Monday 23rd, it was announced that visits would be suspended from the following day. However, other than publicising that a help-line for families would be available from Friday 26th, there has been no information shared with families as to how they can keep in contact. On Tuesday 24th, the Justice Secretary noted that family contact is “crucial” and acknowledged that: “We know that technology exists elsewhere in relation to mobile phones that have restricted call lists, and we are looking at other measures such as videoconferencing.” Yet despite this acknowledgement that the technology exists, there has as yet been no action here. Meaningful measures to support family contact must be introduced urgently.
  1. There are short-term low risk prisoners, as well as long-term prisoners at the end of their sentence, all of whom could be released on HDC. And this would free up space needed to reduce the harm caused by Covid 19 inside Scottish prisons. Both prison staff and families of prisoners have contacted SPARC to express their distress at the current handling of the situation. The Scottish government need to make the brave but also the socially just decision to release these prisoners. A prison sentence should not be a death sentence.

Too late, too vague – where is the detailed transparent COVID-19 plan for Scottish prisons? A disaster waiting to happen

Yesterday it was confirmed that two people in prison at HMP Kilmarnock were in self-isolation with the first suspected cases of Coronavirus in prisons in Scotland. Meanwhile, down south a prison officer at HMP High Down was diagnosed with the virus. This is terrifying for those who are trapped inside and for their families and friends outside.

A late plan, and poor communication for prisoners and their families, staff or the public. For those watching the rapid spread of the coronavirus, both from within and outwith prison walls, this moment was inevitable. However, despite its clear inevitability, there is currently no clear transparent plan in place from the Scottish government regarding how people living and working in prison will be protected. Until today there had been a deafening silence from the Scottish Prison Service both publicly and internally. Reports from those inside suggest that information for both people living and working in prison has been very poor, which adds to the fear. When a statement was finally released today, this offered only vague assurances, which fail to address the specifics of the prison setting.

Scottish prisons are among the most crowded, creating ‘perfect’ conditions for rapid spread of Covid-19. At 150 people per 100,000 of the population, Scotland’s incarceration rate is one of the highest in Europe. As of the 13th March there were 8,094 people in Scottish prisons (SPS, 2020), significantly higher than the operational capacity of 7,676 (Audit Scotland, 2019). When the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT, 2019) visited Scottish prisons in 2018, they found that people living in Barlinnie had less then 3m2 each of living space, and in HMP Grampian mattresses had been placed on the floors under bunk beds, to turn double cells into triple occupancy. Conditions in the cells in Barlinnie, especially in the Admissions Unit, were described as dirty and cramped (pp.30-32).

Those in prison are especially at risk of worse outcomes of Covid-19. It is well-established that people in prison experience poorer physical health than the general population. The UK government guidance published on 16th March identifies a number of ‘vulnerable’ groups, and people in prison find themselves over-represented within some of these groups. Data from 2007 identified 12% of people in Scottish prisons as having asthma, compared to 5% of the general population (Graham, 2007). The same report estimates a high proportion of Hepatitis C among people in prison (20%), and a higher rate of liver problems due to alcohol use. While HMP Low Moss yesterday asked volunteers not to come into the prison for at least three weeks, in others it appears to have been business as usual, with education and other events which involve the flow of people back and forth through the prison gates continuing as normal.

Self-isolating is difficult and particularly dangerous for those in prison. The physical and emotional toll of isolation within prison is well-established, so the Government advice given to those in the community presents risks to those in prison. People in prison are at increased risk of death from suicide, and there have been a number of high profile deaths of young people in Scottish prisons in recent years. Recent research emphasised that less isolation and more access to family were crucial for the wellbeing of young people in custody, but both of these are likely to be highly limited in the current context (Armstrong and McGhee, 2019). Without any clear strategies for managing the pandemic in prison, the default approach likely is to just bang up people in their cells.

Reducing visits risks prison order. With the likelihood of reduced or cancelled visits, this is hugely concerning and dangerous. Family visits are precious, and both the direct and indirect impact of limiting these can be significant. In Italy, when significant restrictions were placed on visits as part of measures to limit the spread of coronavirus, this contributed to riots within the prisons, which resulted in the death of 12 people (The Independent, 13 March 2020). The risk of instability inside the prison is yet another concern for those in prison and their families.

Staffing levels and sick leave in Scottish prisons are critical. As well as direct measures taken by the prison to limit these, there will also be knock-on effects of staff shortages as a result of self-isolation and sickness. SPS is not well-equipped to manage this, as sickness absence has already been identified by Audit Scotland as one of key pressures placing the estate at increasing risk of failure. There has been a rise in sickness absence of over 60% in the last three years (Audit Scotland, 2019), with 40,522 working days lost to sickness between 1 January and 24 July 2019 alone (SPS, 2019).

Without action, court delays could increase the time people spend in prison. There are currently well over a thousand (1,317) untried people in Scottish prisons, with another 311 awaiting sentence. These people ‘on remand’ in prison are rightly concerned that any court closures will mean substantial delays to their cases, which could significantly extend the period of time that they spend in prison, despite not having been convicted or sentenced. As well as those on remand, there are a number of people in Scottish prisons who are awaiting removal or deportation. At end of December 2019, there were 42 people being held in Dungavel immigration removal centre (SDV, 2020). These people are not serving a sentence for any crime.

We are seeing now the cost of high prison populations. Now is the time to urgently reduce the prison population. In Ireland, we understand that consideration is being given to early release for some groups (RTE, 13th March 2020). Similar rumours have also emerged about England and Wales, with the head of the Prison Officers’ Association reported by Sky News as saying that everything was on the table (Sky News, 15th March 2020). It has been reported by the BBC today that in England and Wales, the Home Detention Curfew scheme will be extended so that people can spend the final six months of the custody part of their sentence in the community on tag (up from the current arrangements of four and a half months).

The SPS and Scottish Government need to offer clear, effective and supportive positions, and SPARC demands, at a minimum:

A clear and detailed statement from the SPS on its Covid-19 policy, available to the public and communicated immediately to all staff and all imprisoned people and their families.

Urgent and maximum expansion of HDC release for prisoners including automatic HDC for anyone in the last six months of their sentence, as is under consideration in England and Wales.

Presumption of bail for all those accused; immediate release of those on remand as default excepting only those charged with murder, rape and domestic abuse.

Immigration authorities and the UK government should exercise powers to release those in immigration detention, and support should be provided for those with nowhere to go.

Postponement of all community sentences, following the lead of the Netherlands to modify community sentences.

End the mobile phone ban now – emergency suspension of criminal prohibition on phones, and until this is implemented, prisoners should be given unlimited credit to make phone calls to loved ones.

No questions asked policy and immediate access for prisoners to speak by phone to qualified mental health professional or service.

Acquire and make use of iPads and tablets for video visits in all prisons and for all prisoners.

Free stamps and stationery provided to prisoners and families.

Continued access to exercise and outdoors for all those in prison.

A clear protocol for emergency medical attention for those unwell in prison.

Direct involvement of prisoners co-creating strategies to support wellbeing – this may involve letting prisoners suggest ideas, self-organise their own staggered access to activities and association.


IWD 2020 What about the women in prison?

In light of International Women’s Day (IWD), on 8 March, we are prompted to think about women everywhere, including in prison.

IWD started as a radical struggle by women to recognise their status as equal human beings, protected by and entitled to the same rights as men. Is this being achieved for women in prison? What other gender issues play out around activism and prison?

A few months ago, the Committee for the Prevention of Torture published its report (CPT, 2019), dominated by scathing commentary about the treatment of women in Scottish prisons. Horrific examples described women with severe mental health and physical health issues being held in isolation. In one case CPT investigators noted a woman who had gnawed her arm to the point that her bone was visible (see pages 7, 48). Additional observations of extreme suffering by women prisoners should shock and shame Scotland into action. One wonders whether this report, on the back of a similarly negative assessment by Audit Scotland in 2019 and other recent troubles, is behind the recently announced retirementof the Scottish Prison Service Chief Executive.

Exceptionally abhorrent examples should not, however, blind us to the routine ways that women in prison suffer and are let down by those in a position to help. Following the CPT’s visit to Scotland, women continue to die in prison, be locked in their own cells or segregation units for 22-23 hours a day as standard (see p. 28), and to be subject to infantilising, degrading treatment. Where are Scotland’s vaunted human rights mechanisms, its champions of women prisoners, and its politicians, and why has there been no outcry about the generally poor conditions of this group?

The Scottish Government accepted the findings of the nearly decade old Angiolini Commission on Women ‘Offenders’, including that most women should not be imprisoned, and to close HMP Cornton Vale. Neither of these has happened. While there are fewer younger women going to prison (though some still do including the fatal imprisonment of Katie Allan in 2018), the overall rate of women’s imprisonment in Scotland is stable, and still among the highest in Europe.

A neglected feature of the sympathetic, reforming tone in Scottish policy and academia towards women in conflict with law has been about the dangers of a victim discourse. This frames women passively as victims – more screwed up than men, having deeper or worse histories of trauma, denied existence as people themselves but identified and important mainly in relation to others (as unfit mothers or troubled daughters). As Una Barr points out, ‘when women are constructed solely as victims, they are pathologised, their agency disappears’ (page 151), incapable of organising their own lives, or finding their ways out of trouble. Women thus are positioned as in need of constant and coercive state rescue.

An irony of Scotland’s turn towards policies that support families and communities is that in prison, this has meant eroding the quality of the prison experience for women. How does this work? Co-locating groups – women, remand, men, protection (i.e. vulnerable) prisoners – in local prisons to bring them nearer to families has crowded these prisons and complicated their scheduling of activities (regimes). The easiest means of managing multiple groups is to keep them locked in their cells. Rationales are produced to explain this practice as reasonable. For women, this involves pathologizing them as both more bullying and bullied, more disruptive, deranged, disturbed.  Women also are subject to traumatising body searches (see p. 26) that have been challenged by the inspectorate of prisons.

Another irony of dispersing women around Scotland’s local prisons has been increasing the amount of time they spend in prisoner transport vans. This issue was of such concern to the Prison Inspectorate for Scotland they included an appendix charting a single day’s journey showing the amount of time women spent in vans (see pages 8 and 11; the issue remains a serious problem, see page 49); sometimes this was up to 12 hours – with no or few bathroom breaks, no menstrual products/accommodations, delayed or missed meals – all while handcuffed within these comfortless vehicles, isolated in claustrophobic cubicles on moulded plastic seats.

As one of the smallest groups, women have reduced access to the most worthwhile activities in prison including: education, jobs, family visits, exercise. All of these things are essential to surviving the prison experience. An additional effect is to reduce women’s visibility and ability to participate in activism around their confinement. Our existence as a collective was able to develop through the regular access our imprisoned men members had to contact with outsiders through education and other initiatives. Imprisoned women participated to some extent, but were much more constrained. In one case, our women colleagues were unable to attend education groups because of their having laundry jobs – not only typical women’s work, but also prioritised by the prison over their education.

We call for greater attention to be brought to this violence of women’s imprisonment and for it to be recognised as violence, and to resist ideology of prison as the care of victims. In the radical spirit of IWD’s origins, we urge well-intentioned reformers to abandon the paternalistic, infantilising language of victims, and to work towards ways of empowering the political awareness and participation of women everywhere.

And on a final note, we include unequivocally in the struggle for women’s rights in prison and in society, trans women, who face distinctive and profound forms of violence.

Screenshot 2020-03-11 at 12.59.52
Images are from the Barnard Center for Research on Women, as part of a collection and exhibition on Women’s Prison Activism. (url:


Armstrong, S. and McGhee, J. (2019) Mental Health and Wellbeing of Young People in Custody: Evidence Review, Glasgow: Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research. Available at: 10.03.20)

Audit Scotland (2019) The 2018/19 Audit of the Scottish Prison Service, Edinburgh: Audit Scotland. Available at: (accessed 10.03.20)

Barr, U. (2019) Desisting Sisters: gender, power and desistance in the criminal (in)justice system. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan.

Barry, EM. (2000) Women Prisoners on the Cutting Edge: Development of the Activist Women’s Prisoners’ Rights Movement, Social Justice, Vol. 27, No. 3 (81), pp. 168-175.

Cee Whitehead, J. (2007). Feminist prison activism: An assessment of empowerment. Feminist Theory, 8(3), 299–314.

Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) (2019) Report to the Government of the United Kingdom on the visit to the United Kingdom carried out by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) from 17 to 25 October 2018, Council of Europe. Available at: (accessed 10.03.20)

HM Inspectorate for Prisons Scotland (HMIPS) (2017) 2016-17 Annual Report, HMIPS. (accessed 11.03.20)

HM Inspectorate for Prisons Scotland (HMIPS) (2019) 2018-19 Annual Report, HMIPS. (accessed 11.03.20)

HM Inspectorate for Prisons Scotland (HMIPS) (2016) Follow-up inspection of HMP & YOI Cornton Vale. HMIPS. Available at: (accessed 11.03.20)

Moore, L. and Scraton, P. (2013) The Incarceration of Women: Punishing Bodies, Breaking Spirits. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Moore, L. &and Scraton, P. (2009) The Imprisonment of Women and Girls in the North of Ireland: A ‘Continuum of Violence’, in Scraton, P. and McCulloch, J. (eds.), The Violence of Incarceration. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 124 -144.

SPARC response to consultation on whole life custody bill

A member of the Scottish Parliament, unable to gain any support from colleagues outside his party, has launched as an individual member a consultation for a Proposed Whole Life Custody Bill (Scotland): Along with numerous other groups, we have submitted a response to the consultation strongly opposing this senseless, cynical attempt. A summary of our submission follows, and the full response will be available on the Government’s website in due course.

As a collective who have spent many years bearing witness to and researching the harms which imprisonment causes to individuals, families and communities, the proposed whole life custody bill makes no sense on legal, moral, ethical, political and social policy grounds. There is no evidence presented that this sentence would improve the safety of individuals or communities, and there is strong evidence to suggest that it would be both inhumane and challenging to implement. We would also strongly argue that there is no need for this proposed sentence, as it adds nothing to existing law.

Scotland already has and makes use of extensive powers of “whole life” punishment. One example of this is by ordering punishment parts (the minimum period of a sentence to be sent in prison) that cannot be completed within one’s life span, such as the  recent example of a 69 year old man receiving a 37 year punishment part (Angus Sinclair the so-called World’s End killer). Scotland also allows life sentences for crimes less than murder through its Order for Lifelong Restriction. England abolished its analogous discretionary life sentence, the Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP), under a Conservative Government on the grounds that it was inhumane and unjust. Let’s stop talking about Scotland as being “soft” on punishment, and start evidencing the impact of Scotland’s use of existing sentencing law.

The proposal aims to resurrect  the death penalty by another name. Whole life custody, without the possibility of parole, has been described as sentencing a person to “death by incarceration”. As researcher Ashley Nellis points out, such a sentence means “the government has decided how and where the individual will die. When looked at from this view, LWOP is not so different from the death penalty.”

A sentence without hope or end is incompatible with human dignity and just society. Hope, and specifically the hope of release, is central to construction of both a sense of self and also human dignity. Denying a person the possibility to reintegrate is incompatible with human dignity. A sentence of this type has no place in Scottish society.

A damaging direction for penal policy, moving Scotland even further out of step with Europe and closer to a US norm of ‘perpetual punishment’. In 2008 the Scottish Government embarked on a major reform effort (via the McLeish Commission) that documented how prison populations are harmful and damaging not just people in prison but for the communities and society outside of them. The proposed sentence would reverse an aspiration of progress, and entrench a worrying regressive trend: Scotland already leads Europe with the highest proportion of its prison population serving life sentences. This is not the result of more crime or a higher homicide rate, but of sentencing and politicisation of crime policy, of which this consultation is a sad example. Overall this proposal reflects a deep ignorance of current sentence and prison trends and a sad opportunism of going after easy targets – the worst of the worst individuals – that provides cover for a broader lack of ideas and willingness to work hard towards safe, inclusive and thriving communities.

Knock on effects of longer sentences and a growing prison population. The consultation reflects an unacceptable level of ignorance about the upward drift in sentence lengths in Scotland trends and their effects. Those sentenced to prison are spending longer periods in custody and this has knock on effects for the overall size of prison populations and the problems related to this. This is because a small number of very long serving prisoners has a huge impact on availability of cells, squeezing space. The US thought they could build their way out of this problem. Even the most confirmed tough on crime lawmakers across the Atlantic have now renounced this approach.

The introduction of whole life sentences would have negative implications for all of those who come into the criminal justice system, for another reason. This rebranding exercise mainly acts to increase a rhetoric of ‘othering’ all those in the criminal justice system, simplifying the world into “us” law abiding citizens and “them” horrible criminals. These labels are not based on a reality of people who are all good or bad, and we believe people in Scotland deserve better than to be distracted by these patronising debates at a time when crime is at an historic low, and there are much more urgent matters at hand to ensure the country’s security, safety and success.

People can and do change; sentences without end undermine this. It is particularly challenging to devise a prison regime that is both constructive and safe for those serving a sentence of life without parole (and those working with them), because this group of prisoners have no incentive of progression and “nothing left to lose”. Moreover, research conducted in the US by Marion Vannier suggests the people serving sentences of life without parole may be considered low priority for employment or other opportunities within the prison, leaving their efforts to change poorly supported and often unacknowledged (Vannier, 2016). Lengthening sentences, with a whole life term being the extreme case, may actually reduce the chances that the sentence will be spent productively and constructively.