You may have noticed I don’t have much time for the Scottish Justice Secretary, “Clear Desk” Kenny MacAskill. It’s hardly surprising given that he seems to be the Fount of all Illiberality. In fact, he could teach Chris Grayling and Theresa May a thing or two. Actually, I might even rate Blunkett above him.
If it’s not presiding over court closures (operational matter for the Court Service says Kenny), indiscriminate use of armed police and massive rise in stop and search (operational matters for Police Scotland) and the appalling conditions at Cornton Vale women’s prison (operational matter for the Prison Service). I wouldn’t be surprised if he thought the cleanliness of his bathroom was an operational matter for the toilet brush.
The latest outrage comes in the form of the answer to a written question posed by Scottish Liberal Democrat justice spokesperson Alison McInnes. At the end of last year she raised concerns about the number of prisoners kept in solitary confinement, often for long periods. These prisoners are often vulnerable, with mental health conditions.
Being kept alone for long spells at a time can’t be helpful. If only the Prison Service had sufficient mental health professionals to give these people the care that they need, but the provision is so low as to be actively dangerous. Dumfries Prison, housing 250 of the prisoners with the greatest need has one part time psychologist.
The answer to Alison that there were 100 more incidents of women being kept in solitary confinement than there were in 2011-12. The total number of cases rose by 41% in the last year. The Prison Service doesn’t appear to be particularly good at documenting the reasons for this, at least in a form that’s useful for answering questions form MSPs. That, surely, needs to change as soon as possible so there can be proper information as to the reasons for those confinement orders.
Alison called for back to back solitary confinement orders to be independently reviewed to ensure that prisoners were being humanely treated. It’s understandable given that one example she came across was of a vulnerable young woman was kept in solitary confinement for 387 days in 17 months. That can’t be right, surely. Alison said:
It is deeply concerning that there has been a 41 per cent increase in the number of occasions on which prisoners have been isolated in the last year. I’m worried that these figures show a prison service under extreme pressure. It would be inappropriate for there to be a growing reliance on these orders simply to manage the problems of overcrowding.
There are occasions when offenders need to be locked up alone in a prison cell and kept under close supervision to protect themselves and others. In the majority of cases, people are reintegrated into the main prison very quickly and separation can be considered a useful safety valve.
But I am alarmed that some prisoners are being kept in solitary confinement for months on end. This does nothing to address the root of their problems and could only serve to compound the serious mental health conditions that underpin some of the prisoners displaying dangerous behaviour. Only last year I learnt that one woman spent 387 days over a 17 month period locked up alone.
We should be ashamed if solitary confinement is being relied upon as a management tool for prisoners with serious mental health problems. This seems out of step with a 21st century criminal justice system.
It seems ludicrous that neither the Justice Secretary nor the chief of the Scottish Prison Service can tell us who exactly is signing off these orders, or even if any have ever been declined or revoked for example following the advice of a doctor.
Currently these orders can be renewed indefinitely with no external review. The Justice Secretary must amend prison rules so an independent panel can consider whether back-to-back orders are appropriate and ensure that basic human rights are being protected.
The Justice Secretary can’t keep fobbing this off as an operational matter. Ultimately, he is responsible for ensuring that Scotland has a well-disciplined yet humane prison regime.
The current situation cannot be allowed to continue. People to whom the Scottish Government has a duty of care are suffering and there is something that can be done. to stop it.