The inside story of Scotland’s demoralised prison service


by Kenneth Roy

The news from Tommy Sheridan, who has entered his third calendar month of imprisonment, tells us more about the Barlinnie regime than it does about its best-known inmate.  He has not been offered a job and is locked in a tiny cell, which he shares with a man half his age, 22 hours a day.

During his brief recreational periods, he plays football.  Last week, three prison officers came to his cell and strip-searched him on suspicion of possessing a mobile phone.  They didn’t find one.  A copy of a socialist newspaper has been confiscated.  All this he reports uncomplainingly; he gets on well with his ‘co-pilot’ (cell-mate) and says that he is being treated well.

Tommy Sheridan will be released long before he has served the three years to which he was sentenced.  His friends hope that he will be out as early as Christmas on a tag.  Yes, he will be a free man one day – if not by Christmas then perhaps by next spring.  But there are people who are confined year after year, their wretched lives apparently getting steadily worse.  These are the people who work in prisons.

Not all prison officers are engaged in the dispiriting task of strip-searching people like Tommy Sheridan in the endless search for mobile phones.  Some do more constructive work.  Through the Young Scotland Programme, I have met people of high idealism and dedication employed by the prison service.  Indeed, one of the more impressive men in Scotland in my lifetime was a prison officer.

His name was Ken Murray.  He worked in the Barlinnie special unit, a place apart, a therapeutic space for some of Scotland’s most violent and dangerous men.  One day, Ken Murray handed the notorious Jimmy Boyle a pair of scissors.  It was an act of faith.  What might Jimmy Boyle have done with those scissors?  Here was a prisoner who had covered the walls of his cell at Peterhead in his own excrement, and that was the least of it.  Yet he became a sculptor, a writer.  He was released completely rehabilitated, a changed man.

The last time we met, we were checking into the Basil Street Hotel in Knightsbridge at the same time.  “What are you doing here?” I asked.  “What are you?” Jimmy Boyle replied with a gentle laugh.

The men I met in the sex offenders’ wing at Barlinnie nine years ago – most of them will have been released by now.  It too was a place apart, though for different reasons, a more civilised environment than the Victorian halls – and the people running it seemed perceptive.  I have never forgotten what one of them told me: ‘We can only work effectively with the prisoners in this place if they’re serving a long sentence.  It takes them at least 18 months to acknowledge what they’ve done’.

What is going on in the Scottish Prison Service?  Why, after a poor report in 2009, has confidence in the senior management more or less evaporated?

I mention these experiences to give a human dimension not only to the importance of the prison officers’ work but to the shocking collapse of morale and confidence among the staff of the Scottish Prison Service (SPS).  Someone has sent me an obscure civil service document – the results of an annual survey, conducted in the autumn of last year, based on detailed questionnaires completed by SPS employees.  It would be difficult to imagine a more damning indictment of senior management.

Here are the main findings.  The first figure represents the percentage of respondents registering a positive answer to each proposition.  The second figure represents the change, if any, from the identical survey conducted a year earlier.

  • When changes are made in SPS they are usually for the better, 24% (+1)
  • I feel that change is managed well in SPS, 27% (0)
  • I believe that the Board has a clear vision for the future of SPS, 33% (-2)
  • I feel that SPS as a whole is managed well, 38% (-3)
  • Overall, I have confidence in the decisions made by SPS’s senior managers,      29% (-6)
  • I believe that the actions of senior managers are consistent with SPS’s      values, 32% (-8)
  • I think it is safe to challenge the way things are done in SPS, 31% (-9)
  • Senior managers in SPS are sufficiently visible, 36% (-9)
  • I have the opportunity to contribute my views before decisions are made that      affect me, 22% (-10)
  • SPS keeps me informed about matters that affect me, 39% (-15)

When asked whether they believed that senior managers would take action on these devastating results, only 22% replied yes.  It is important, of course, to put the statistics within the context of the civil service as a whole.  In category after category, on core issues of basic leadership, SPS measures strikingly worse – up to minus-16 – than the government departments rated highly.  There is no way round it: this is the portrait of a demoralised and disillusioned workforce.  Yet it is one expected to operate at the sharpest end of society.

What is going on in the Scottish Prison Service?  Why, after a poor report in 2009, has confidence in the senior management more or less evaporated?  With these questions in mind, I turned to the minutes of recent meetings of the management group, yet I could find no mention of the incriminating document; not a whisper.  Has the report simply been brushed under the few carpets that are to be found in our prisons?  Is the justice secretary, Kenny MacAskill, even aware of it?

More to the point, are the non-executive directors of SPS – the custodians of the public interest – aware of it?  They certainly ought to be.

The non-execs are:

  • Allan Burns, a retired senior executive in the whisky industry.  He was chairman of the Homecoming Project 2009.
  • Bill Morton – I have been unable to find out anything about him.
  • Jane Martin – She works for Dundee City Council.
  • Harry McGuigan – A councillor representing the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.
  • Sue Matheson – Formerly of Sacro; now with the Howard League for Penal Reform.

Most promisingly, perhaps, from the point of view of actually doing anything about the dire state of affairs in SPS, there is Zoe Van Zwanenberg, whose professional background ‘in the development of leaders and leadership across the public sector in Scotland’ would appear to confer some authority.  She is on record as declaring: “Take nothing for granted. Never cease to ask questions.”  Quite.

About the senior management of the Scottish Prison Service, whose director earns the tidy sum of £130,000 a year, there are more than a few questions which demand her urgent attention.

This article was reproduced with the kind permission of Kenneth Roy.
Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.