Can crisis change our prisons?

Most of us don’t change until we have to, and crisis is often what obliges us to do so. Crises are often resolved only through a new identity and new purpose, whether it’s that of a nation or a single human being ― Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

The idea that crisis can lead to positive change pervades our cultural imagination, and since the outbreak of COVID 19, many may have found comfort and purpose in the sentiment expressed in the quotation above. 

However, when it comes to prisons, the links between crisis and reform are highly contested. As critical criminologists such as David Scott and Joe Sim argue, prisons have always been damaging to those held within them, and therefore each generation of politicians will face its own prisons crisis, with the outbreak of COVID 19 being just the latest example. 

Indeed, is not so many years ago that Scotland faced a profound period of prisons crisis. The mid 1980s were a time of significant overcrowding, conflict and unrest in Scottish prisons, characterised by serious disturbances, roof-top occupations, dirty protests and industrial action. In 1987, fears that the government response to this unrest was insufficient led to the formation of Independent Inquiry into events at Peterhead prison. The findings of the Inquiry, which was led by a team including Jimmy Boyle, Alistair Duff, Phil Scraton and Joe Sim, were published in the report The Roof Comes Off

In this blog we outline how many of the issues facing families today were also raised in the Roof Comes Off inquiry more than 30 years ago. This helps us to see what has changed (or not) for families affected by imprisonment, and raises important questions as to whether or not prisons as institutions are capable of meaningful reform in the face of adversity. 

Barriers to regular contact 

The Roof Comes Off reported that families found the journey to the remote Peterhead prison to be long and exhausting. These trips frequently took many hours, often on multiple forms of public transport. The financial cost could be a significant barrier to visiting, and while some financial assistance was available, the report noted that this was limited and could be humiliating to claim.

Prior to the outbreak of COVID 19, these difficulties for families persisted. The most recent SPS Prisoner Survey found nearly half of those in custody (47%) reported problems in receiving visits, due to distance, cost, lack of public transport, lack of childcare and the general stress of visiting. While families on low incomes may access financial supports, they must pay all these expenses first, and then wait to claim this money back. This stretches already limited budgets, and disadvantages the many families affected by imprisonment who are already living in poverty. 

The advance of technology offers opportunities to relieve some of these burdens, and ‘email a prisoner’ schemes, virtual-visits and regular phone contact can be a valued means of contact. The accessibly of these technologies to people in prison is crucial, as fifteen years ago criminologists Alison Liebling and Shadd Maruna warned of “a growing dissonance between an increasingly connected world and the particular capacity of the prison to ‘cut off’”[i].

The outbreak of COVID 19 not only highlights this continued dissonance, but brings an urgent need for action. In a recent speech, Nicola Sturgeon emphasised the importance of family to all citizens, explaining that she also missed hers, and thanking children because “not being at school, or seeing your friends, or hugging your grandparents is really tough”. Yet while families in the community make increasing use of the internet and video calls to stay in contact, eight weeks after visit to prison were suspended, families affected by imprisonment still await a technical solution to facilitate regular contact. This is despite an announcement last week that video visits are to rolled out in prisons in England and Wales

That the only universal measure to be introduced to all prisons in Scotland to support family ties has been an extra £2.50 a week to buy phone credit to use phones on prison landings highlights the reliance on ‘traditional’ technologies, and the lack of infrastructure to support families to continue to communicate in the ways they would at home. The Scottish Government has sought to address this lack of infrastructure by providing people in custody with heavily restricted mobile phones, but again, families are still waiting for these to be made available. These delays inevitably raise questions as to whether earlier investment in modern technologies to support family contact in meaningful and accessible ways (for instance, facilities for video visits and in-cell phones) would have avoided the very difficult circumstances families affected by imprisonment now find themselves in. 

The quality of family contact 

In the Roof Comes Off, the Inquiry Team were strongly critical of the Peterhead visiting room, noting that the booths in the visiting room were made up of a “fixed wooden base topped with glass to prevent easy physical contact”. They argued strongly for more relaxed visiting conditions which would allow families to spend quality time together, which they describe as including: easy physical contact, taking photographs together, sharing meals, and exchanging gifts at Christmas, birthdays, and other significant events. 

This is an area where there has been some progress, particularly in terms of the material setting for visits. The SPS has made considerable investments in modernising the prison estate, and is working towards providing Visitors’ Centres (for families to wait, access information and seek support) at all prisons. Prior to the suspension of visits, improvements in the services available to families have also seen the introduction of more relaxed visiting sessions for children, family fun days, and homework clubs, and other similar projects. However, concerns remain that these are primarily aimed towards families with young children, and that these more relaxed visits still represent a minority of visiting sessions. Those attending ‘regular’ visits will do so in more modern rooms, but which are often busy, loud, lacking in privacy, and which have tables and chairs fixed the floor. 

The 1987 report also documented profound difficulties faced by people in prison and their families when attempting to maintain relationships in meaningful ways. For instance, when ordering supplies from the prison canteen, should limited prison wages be spent to buy tobacco, stamps or toothpaste? What should families do when they find that the person has been moved to a different prison without notice, or that their phone messages go unanswered? Again, these issues persist, with familiesresearchers and charities in Scotland and across the UK noting that families face considerable challenges in maintaining regular contact and navigating prison systems. Low prison wages contribute to these difficulties, and ‘rationing’ deodorant to pay for phone credit remains a painful reality for some people in prison today. 

As the 1987 Inquiry report notes, issues of this sort stem from both the complexity of prison systems and a lack of flexibility when the needs of families conflict with the prison’s working practices. The steps which have been taken so far to maintain family contact throughout the COVID crisis suggests that this fundamental power imbalance between families and the prison persists. Measures which may benefit families, but will also reduce the administrative burden on institutions (such as the ability to pay in money electronically, a dedicated family helpline and an online FAQ), are now in place. However, those that will support quality contact, such as mobile phones and video visits have not, as yet, materialised. 

Crisis and Reform?

So what has changed for families since the publication of The Roof Comes Off back in 1987, and what might these two periods of crisis teach us? We suggest that the ill-effects of imprisonment for many families are not only inherent to this form of punishment, but they are also enduring. The last three decades have seen some improvements in services and facilities, but the fundamental power that the prison has to separate families, dictate what contact is permitted, incur costs for visits, monitor communication and subject families to other intrusive security procedures remain unchanged. 

Consequently, there is an urgent need for action to better support families affected by imprisonment. In the current crisis, we must all work towards:

  • The introduction of technologies to facilitate video (and other virtual) forms of contact. 
  • A transparent conversation around the challenges of utilising these technologies in a prison setting, and how this might be overcome. 
  • Opportunities for families and people in prison to be part of these discussions. 
  • The publication by the Scottish Government and SPS of clear timeline of when virtual contact will be introduced.

Going forward, such efforts can support a fundamental shift toward prioritising the quality of family contact, even when this is burdensome to the institution, or difficult or challenging to achieve. When it is safe for visits to resume, there must be an urgency around sustaining and improving recent positive initiatives to support families. This might include: 

  • A greater role for Family Contact Officers, and efforts to ensure groups who might particularly benefit from their support (for instance, those on remand) can access this. 
  • A continuation and extension of activities such as homework clubs, shared meals, family days and other initiatives which prioritise high-quality contact.
  • Engagement with a range of organisations to ensure a programme of activities is available to support all family ties, not just those between parents and young children. 
  • Regular consultation with families themselves, to find out what might best meet their needs. 
  • Greater opportunities to learn from projects or initiatives which have been particularly successful.

That many of these suggestions closely resonate with the recommendations made in The Roof Comes Off over three decades ago is deeply troubling, and challenges notions that when it comes to prisons, adversity might, in of itself, speed up progressive reform. It will be vital, then, that the impact of the COVID crisis on family contact for families affected by imprisonment is closely monitored and, like in the Peterhead Inquiry, that families themselves are central to this process. 

[i] Liebling, A. and Maruna, S. (2005) The Effects of Imprisonment, Abbington: Routledge. 

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.


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.

Ross Kemp Behind Bars: Hiding from the hard questions in Barlinnie

Last week we saw actor and documentary maker Ross Kemp spend time in Glasgow’s Barlinnie prison, in an attempt to address a question which has long troubled academics, policy makers, and those sentenced to custody: what are prisons for?

That Kemp and his documentary team selected Barlinnie to explore this question seems very much to have been a deliberate choice, taken to capture the viewer’s attention through multiple references to Barlinnie’s “dark history” and “stone walls”.   However, while Barlinnie’s age, scale, and history may make for a striking setting for a television documentary, they are somewhat atypical of modern prisons in Scotland.  As a recent inspection report of Barlinnie notes, while the vast majority of men in Barlinnie are accommodated traditional, “imposing” Victorian halls, this reflects Barlinnie’s place as one of Scotland’s oldest and largest prisons.

This focus on traditional, or even clichéd, symbols and stories of prison life persist throughout the hour that we spend with Kemp in Barlinnie.  The only workplace we see within the prison is the kitchen, where the emphasis is placed on the need to manage any risk of violence rather than the work being done.  Kemp suggests that “potential weapons” abound in the prison kitchen, noting the potential harm that can be caused by knives, boiling water, and even soup.  The residential hall where we spend the most time is E Hall, where men who require protection from the remainder of the prison population due to the nature of their offence, serve their sentence.

We also explore the prison exercise yard, where interviewees attest to the dangerous nature of the prison environment, before being shown an array of weapons and mobile phones which have been confiscated by officers.  This then seems to serve as justification for showing viewers a detailed cell-search, including a strip-search of the individual under suspicion.  While his identity is concealed, there is no reflection on the invasive nature of broadcasting this element of the prison regime for public consumption, nor any consideration of how this person might feel as a consequence.  The only glimpse we see of the individual as a person, rather than a faceless prisoner, is when the officer thoroughly searches a pile of immaculately kept letters, presumably from his family.

There are intriguing moments where some of the more complex issues facing those living and working in prisons are alluded to.  For instance, the difficulties of sentence progression for those serving indeterminate sentences are highlighted in the account of one man who remains in Barlinnie six years past the “punishment part” of his sentence, as a consequence of a heroin addiction he developed to cope with the prison environment.  When Kemp asks if he has been rehabilitated, he responds that he is not sure if it is growing older or rehabilitative programs that have led him to change, but in any case this doesn’t matter while it is his addiction, rather than his offending which is keeping him in custody.  This raises questions relating not only to the progression process for life sentences, but also whether addictions can or should be addressed within the criminal justice system.

The prison officers interviewed by Kemp also provide a more sophisticated account of life in Barlinnie.  From the officer working with protection prisoners who emphasises the need to see the whole person and not just their offence, to the officer running the gym who highlights the critical importance of relationships in creating a well-run prison, these officers provide insights which would have made a more challenging and engaging documentary than the continuing emphasis placed on violence and offending by Kemp and his team.  However, it is not only their accounts which are neglected.  We also do not see the library, the education centre, the prison radio station, the visiting room or any other space which might allow for a more rounded view of the lives of the men serving their sentences in Barlinnie.

These choices of the production team to limit what the audience see of Barlinnie are important.  Sociologists who study prisons frequently highlight that these are places where individuals are denied full adulthood, in that they are not trusted to choose when to go to bed, what to eat, what to wear, when to use the phone, where they would like to work or what possessions they may have.  The limited view of Barlinnie presented by Kemp reflects this process of infantalisation, but here it is not the prisoners who are not afforded full trust or maturity, rather it is the audience themselves.  This emphasis this documentary places on common tropes of imprisonment, such as drugs, violence, beasts, “banking”, fear, and cell-searches undermines attempts to meaningfully interrogate questions such as “what are prisons for” and “do they work”.

Kemp concludes the hour by posing what is perhaps the most interesting question documentary: are we as a society doing everything we can to support those who want to change their lives?  This inevitably requires acknowledging our shared humanity and recognising the whole person, not simply seeing them as a “prisoner” or an “offender”.  This documentary may have set out to ask hard questions about our prisons, but by not trusting the audience to understand the complex nature of both the prison and lives of those within it, it instead presents a simple narrative which is unlikely to open up a constructive debate around these questions.