15 January 2020

S5M-19364 Independent Prison Monitors

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani): The first item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-19364, in the name of Alexander Stewart, on the valuable role of independent prison monitors. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament acknowledges that, on 31 August 2015, the first independent prison monitors (IPM) went into Scotland’s 15 prisons, including HMP Glenochil in Clackmannanshire, to ensure humane treatment and conditions for prisoners; believes that, in the months leading up to the launch, HM Inspectorate of Prisons for Scotland (HMIPS) had been on a journey of change by developing a new structure for prison monitoring to replace the previous work done by the long-established prison visiting committees; notes that IPMs are volunteers from communities who visit prisons on at least a weekly basis to observe practices and to speak to prisoners about their experiences; understands that this information about conditions and treatment is collated and that the regional and national findings help detect patterns and provide information for continuous improvement; notes that this system is supported by a team of four prison monitoring co-ordinators based at HMIPS along with an advisory group with expertise in human rights, criminology, prisons and healthcare; acknowledges that each IPM holds statutory authority under the Public Services Reform (Inspection and Monitoring of Prisons) (Scotland) Order 2015; believes that the IPMs play an essential role in the justice system in aiming to ensure that prisoners’ human rights are upheld and that life in prison contributes to rehabilitation; considers that the IPM system has brought a new group of people from a wide range of backgrounds into prisons to act as the eyes and ears of prisoners and their families, and believes that the commitment, motivation and enthusiasm of the growing team of IPMs has been tangible over the last four years and this system has gone a long way to improving Scotland’s prisons, as well as informing best practice in independent monitoring to protect prisoners’ human rights.

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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

I thank Alexander Stewart for giving us the opportunity to debate the important subject of prisons.

In session 2, I was my party’s spokesperson on prisons. Because of that role, and because there has long been a prison in my constituency, I have been to many prisons—not just in Scotland; I have been into prisons in Wales, France and Georgia, in the Caucasus. Different jurisdictions have different approaches to incarceration and the treatment of prisoners, but all prisons deal with the same, difficult part of our communities, that is, people who have got themselves into trouble through their deliberate—or sometimes inadvertent—actions.

People in prison are likely to have lower IQs than people in the population as a whole. There is a greater incidence of mental ill health in prisons, and a much higher proportion of prisoners are functionally illiterate and/or innumerate. There are substantial problems with the people who end up in prison, which are not necessarily as pervasive in the general population.

I have interviewed and listened to prisoners in a number of our prisons and it is always revealing to do that. The first thing that I learned is that most of the people in prison are remarkably similar to the people outside: they are not thinking criminal acts 24 hours a day or planning to be in prison.

As a community, we should be interested in punishment—the deprivation of liberty is a punishment—and we also want to protect our society from the more violent members of our prison population, which is a very small proportion of them. However, even more important, we also want to promote new behaviours and new beginnings for prisoners when they leave the prison.

The prisoners are, of course, isolated from their families and social circles. Therefore, the role of prison visitors, and now of the independent prison monitors, is very important in ensuring that those people have a proper connection with the outside world and someone independent of the system to whom they can take their concerns, whether those are valid or invalid. It is proper and necessary that they can bring their concerns to somebody’s attention.

As an example, I sat in a cell at Saughton with six, or it may have been eight, murderers who were on life sentences. The prison chaplain was at the door in case I was at risk, ready to shout to the staff if necessary, but I had a private conversation with the prisoners. One of them was quite interesting. While he had been out on licence, he was at the scene of another murder. He did not perpetrate the murder, but he wondered why he was recalled to prison. It is interesting that there is often a disconnect between the thinking of people in prisons and the criminal justice system and the thinking that we would like them to have.

Independent prison monitors play an important part in helping prisoners to understand what behaviour outside prison should look like and in keeping them, particularly those with long sentences, in touch with any changes that are happening. In my constituency, Peterhead prison was Scotland’s centre for sex offenders with sentences of more than four years. Some prisoners had been there for well over 10 years—sometimes more than 20 years—and they were totally disconnected from the world outside. They had few visitors, because many of their offences were committed against members of their own families.

I congratulate everyone who takes up the role of independent prison monitor. They have my thanks and, I suspect, the thanks of everyone here. They are a vital part of the system in helping prisoners to come out of prison a wee bit better than when they went in. I hope that they have every success in future.


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