Prison Policy – Scotsman Article – 25 November 2021


I doubt it crossed Douglas Ross’s mind when visiting the Drug Recovery Centre with the First Minister this week, that he was meeting the same people he’s been demanding locked up more often and for longer.

Challenging wicked and depraved criminal’s re-offending’s one thing, vacuous chants of “soft touch justice” quite another. These aren’t heinous criminals, and the solution isn’t to repeatedly put them in prison, it’s to solve the social problems driving their offending.

A ministerial forward to a policy paper identified that stating: “The Governments penal policy is that the prison sentence should be imposed upon those, and only those for whom an alternative disposal is not appropriate. That wasn’t an SNP Minister past or present, but the then Scottish Secretary Malcolm Rifkind back in 1990.

Now I don’t know if Douglas Ross has ever been in a prison. However, I know a man who has been in many and dealing not just with the low-level nuisance offenders but the hard core serious and dangerous ones. That man’s Professor Andrew Coyle and I was reading his book “Prisons of the World”. Scots may remember that he was appointed Governor of HMP Peterhead in 1988 following riots where the SAS had to be used to release a prison officer taken hostage. He then moved south to HMP Brixton, an English institution with the same notoriety as the one he’d left in Scotland.

Subsequently, leaving the prison service and entering academia Andrew Coyle has become a world expert on prisons. A handbook written by him has become a United Nations template for prison management and he’s been called upon by Governments around the world to assist. The UK Government instructing him in the investigation into the murder of the loyalist prisoner Billy Wright and both the UK and USA seeking his skills in an impasse in Palestine, following the assassination of an Israeli Minister.

The Middle East was even more tense than usual then, with the second Palestinian Intifada ongoing, when he was called upon to help broker a deal as an Israeli and Palestinian stand-off ensued. Meetings with Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat were required but arrangements for the secure imprisonment of those responsible were achieved.

So, Professor Coyle’s no “limp wristed liberal” as Douglas Ross might seek to denigrate him, any more than Malcolm Rifkind was when he responded to the prison crises that had broken out both sides of the border, all those decades ago. Some of the prisons he’s visited and describes are “Dantesque” in their horror, whether the Gulags legacy east of the Urals in Russia or in the gang run institutions in Central and Latin America where violence is endemic.

Professor Coyle doesn’t call for the abolition of prisons anymore than Malcolm Rifkind did, but he concludes with reference to Justice Reinvestment. Spend the huge sums we waste locking individuals up, on the deprived areas that they invariably come from.

Douglas Ross should read this book and act like Malcolm Rifkind, not spout banalities.