|The Hopeless (Situation), Eva Merz, You, Me, Us and Them project, 2008/09|
We were fortunate to welcome Baroness Vivien Stern as our guest speaker at Ramsay Garden last month. Stern is a lifelong campaigner for prison reform, with a particular interest in women in prison.
She last spoke at an IFF event in the summer of 2009, alongside the then Governor of Cornton Vale women’s prison, Ian Gunn and former First Minister Henry McLeish (who had then just published Scotland’s Choice, a report for the Scottish Prisons Commission on ‘the purpose and impact of imprisonment in contemporary Scotland’).
Stern returned to address the subject on the day the Chief Inspector of Prisons delivered another ‘unsatisfactory’ report' on conditions at Scotland’s only women’s prison, and the Scottish Parliament debated the report of Elish Angiolini’s Commission on Women Offenders that recommends its closure amid a raft of other much-needed reforms.
Stern began by saying how much she hoped the Angiolini report will make a difference. Because up to this point the story of women’s prison reform has been ‘riddled with sadness and failure’.
In some ways it is not a large problem: there are only 58 women in prison in Scotland with sentences of 4 years or more, plus a further 26 serving life. And the conditions for tackling the challenge in Scotland are good. The prisons are basically humane and respectful, the systems for children in trouble are the best in Europe, and Scotland is unlikely to privatise the probation services as England is doing. The violence reduction work in Glasgow is admired across the world.
However… Over the past 15 years, since a1998 pledge to halve the women’s prison population to 100 souls, there has been one report after another essentially echoing the analysis and recommendations of the Angiolini Commission.
They all conclude, everywhere (not just in the UK), that this is a social problem, women in prison are a ‘super-disadvantaged group’, women and men are different, women in prison are more likely to be damaged than dangerous; and that the answer must include more alternatives to custodial sentencing, more attention on the public and mental health problems in this population, smaller units nearer home for remand prisoners, and much improved conditions for those locked up for a longer term.
Yet there has been very little change over those 15 years, and in the meantime the women’s prison population has increased by 123% to around 450 people (it is difficult to be precise, Stern complained, because the actual figure today is difficult to determine from public sources).
Baroness Jean Corston’s 2007 report was a landmark piece of work, launched into a much more favourable public spending environment when £2.3bn was being put into building new prisons. Yet despite Jean Corston’s indefatigable campaigning, and the diversion of ‘hundreds of thousands’ by charitable foundations into prison reform projects, the only observable change five years on is that ‘routine strip searching of new prisoners has been reduced’.
Stern also referred to a more recent report from the Scottish Parliament’s Equal Opportunities Committee in 2009. The Committee’s convenor was amongst the participants in the seminar – along with others with high level direct experience of trying to shift the system over the past decade.
How then, given this story of sadness and failure, should we respond to this latest report? What might have been missing in all those years, during which it has been universally accepted that something is wrong and ‘something must be done’?
Stern pointed first to the powerlessness of the women’s prison population. They are small in number, have no power in the system, and no real support. Even the women’s movement has largely ignored them.
More fundamentally, she suggested, all of these reports have been launched into a context where we still struggle to decide between two very different schools of criminology.
The first is based on the sentiment that ‘there but for the grace of God go I’. This is the ‘social democratic’ view: prisoners are just like the rest of us, citizens, fellow human beings whom we should seek to rehabilitate and integrate back into society.
The second school is based on the sentiment ‘thank God I am not like those people’. This is the ‘neo-liberal’ view in which prisoners are the enemy of the good society and need to be kept locked up for the good of the decent majority.
We can see where the neo-liberal approach leads by looking at the US: 2.5 million in prison, the highest prison population in the world, the death penalty still active in many states, and prisoners kept in conditions that would be deemed as ‘torture’ (inhuman and degrading treatment) under the European Convention of Human Rights.
Stern suggested that Scotland seems culturally to fall into the social democratic category, but when it comes to criminal justice and the prison system it is becoming neo-liberal in its practice (and in its ‘irresponsible’ rhetoric at election time). She urged us to listen to other voices (like Prof Fergus MacNeill at Glasgow University) and to learn the lessons of the great projects she has seen inScotland. The prison system is not just about locking up ‘defective people’ – it is also about human rights and social justice.
The discussion that followed was remarkably well-informed, thoughtful and engaged. Among other things it revealed:
All in all this was a serious and hopeful discussion. Vivien Stern reminded us that sooner or later people have to take a moral stand, to do the right thing – whether the infrastructure and support are there or not.
When I concluded the session by suggesting that several years from now the Angiolini Report might simply be added to the long list of other reports in a continuing story of sadness and failure I was roundly challenged by the gathering. I am glad to say they had instead rallied to Baroness Stern’s message that ‘this has gone on too long’ and seemed to have resolved collectively that ‘this time will be different’.