Before we try to answer that, I would like to tell you what the people working in Barlinnie are actually confronted with. I’ve spoken to staff at the Prison Officers’ Association who said their members are concerned and frustrated by the conditions: the number of prisoners, the complexity of those incarcerated, the organized crime gangs and the new types of drugs. The combination of all of this, they say, creates an unsafe environment for prisoners and staff alike.
And here’s what Natalie Logan MacLean said to me. Natalie runs a charity called Sisco that helps inmates recover from drugs, and she says she can feel the tension every time she goes to Barlinnie. The metaphor she uses is a boiling kettle with the switch on: eventually it will explode. She also points out that for years the Prison Inspectorate has indicated that Barlinnie is not fit for purpose, and like officers, she sees it when she enters the building: Overcrowding — gross overcrowding — creates a stressful, toxic environment.
The reason I spoke to Natalie and the Prison Officers Union was the comments made by Barlinnie Gov. Michael Stoney over the weekend. His prison is so overcrowded and outdated, he said, that a “catastrophic failure” could occur at any time. He said he spent a lot of time trying to keep the prison functional, but eventually it would fail. “We know that day is coming,” he said.
To avoid the risk of exaggeration, we should try to be clear about what Mr Stoney is saying and not saying. While we obviously can’t know the future, no one I’ve spoken to believes we’re talking about a possible riot – Natalie said she hopes the days of prison riots are over. Instead, we are talking about a serious structural collapse of a prison that was designed for around 900 inmates but houses around 1,500. We’re also talking about a deterioration on a number of other fronts: more deaths, more suicides, more violence, more staff sickness, and so on. As the governor says: catastrophic collapse.
We were told there is a solution: the new HMP Glasgow will replace Barlinnie and it will no doubt be different: more single rooms, access to computers in the cells and just generally a better, cleaner and healthier environment. But I am sorry to say that the Scottish Government bears responsibility so a project due to be completed in 2025 has been pushed back to 2027 and it would absolutely not surprise anyone if it were pushed back any further. That means old Barlinnie will be overcooked for years to come.
The other problem is that you can build a new prison – in fact, you could build a hundred of them if you wanted to – but unless you fix what’s going on underneath, it won’t be long before the new prison is the same Bad as the old one. Professor Philippa Tomczak, who researches prisons and their impact, told me that new prisons cannot solve the fundamental problems: cutbacks, staff shortages, staff turnover. She also points out that no matter how shiny and new the facilities, drugs will get into prisons. That will happen at HMP Glasgow, no question.
So there are two problems left for us to solve: the short-term and the long-term. The short term solution is Barlinnie as it is now and Scottish Liberal Democrat spokesman for Justice Liam McArthur is clear on what is needed. As the replacement is developed, he says the government should allocate more resources to support staff and ensure high safety standards are met and maintained, and he’s right: the prison needs more help, money, resources and staff now.
The longer-term problem is more difficult, however, as it involves ministers, police officers, lawyers, judges – and quite frankly most of us – needing to overcome our ingrained assumptions about crime and punishment. We still send too many people to prison for relatively petty crimes because in socially conservative Scotland we assume that nothing is really done until we can hear the jingle of keys, the sound of boots and the slam of the door. So this is the first thing.
The second is equally fundamental and is also shared by most people I speak to about prisons: we need to get better at tackling the social issues that often lead to people committing crime in the first place. Bad Education. drugs. Some kind of trauma in early life. Natalie herself struggled in school because her father had addiction problems, was in prison and committed suicide, and she realizes how a chaotic life in prison can end. The other problem is that once you’re in prison, you’re disconnected from your family, friends, support, and society in general, increasing the likelihood of ending up behind bars again.
In fact, Natalie is relatively confident about Barlinnie’s replacement and believes it will be a significant improvement (how could it be worse?), but the delays in opening are deeply worrying. The Prison Officers Association told me that Barlinnie staff had been waiting for a replacement for their run-down, run-down prison for a very long time and that the fact that the opening had been postponed was more than frustrating: it was genuinely worrying.
But I end up worrying about something else too, which is that we’re not learning the deeper lessons of Bar-L. Imagine you are off drugs and you are put in a cell with someone who is using drugs. Imagine being stressed outside your box but unable to sleep because your cellmate watches TV all night. Imagine your cellmate doesn’t wash. Imagine having to watch him go to the toilet. It goes on and on, but even so, I’m concerned that many Scots – in regular jobs and maybe even government jobs – still think the prisoners in some way deserve it. Prison should be gloomy. It should be terrible. Bad luck, buddy.
Maybe I’m too pessimistic on this and maybe we’re slowly moving towards more progressive (and effective) prison policies. But perhaps the deeply buried belief, prejudice or instinct that prisoners should suffer makes it easier for a government to allow a situation like Barlinnie to continue. And maybe it makes it easier for governments like ours to just do what they’ve always done. build prison. Fill completely. Keep sending people there. Repeat to infinity.