Miles Briggs: Giving prisoners work readies them for release

MEANINGFUL activites for inmates can strike a balance between protecting the public and rehabilitation, says Miles Briggs

Wednesday, 30th March 2016, 12:29 pm
Updated Wednesday, 30th March 2016, 12:32 pm
Giving prisoners work to do prepares them for life outside. File picture: Rebecca Naden

THE priority for any justice system has to be the protection of the public.

That’s undisputed, and should always drive the approach we take to the role of prisons in society.

But immediately behind that needs to be the rehabilitation of offenders; we owe it to them to give them a second chance in life, and to a society which would benefit from the inevitable drop in reoffending rates.

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It’s Scottish Conservative policy to ensure all inmates use their time inside wisely and productively. We have to make sure they are prepared for life on the outside again, so they can walk out the gates and stand a good chance of getting into education or a meaningful job.

That’s why it’s so disappointing to see that there simply aren’t enough work and education places for inmates in Scotland.

A Freedom of Information request by the Scottish Conservatives has revealed one in five criminals in jail are simply wasting their time. It’s well established that, if they do nothing inside, they’ll only increase their chances of finding their way back there in future.

For instance, in Edinburgh’s jail at Saughton, there was a population last year of 891. But for them, there were only 418 work spaces available and a further 120 “purposeful activity” places – otherwise known as educational development.

In contrast, there were 410 – almost half the inmates – not doing any kind of meaningful activity at all, as well as another 45 who were excused for medical reasons.

HMP Addiewell did not hold the relevant information, but if all other prisons across Scotland are anything to go by, the chances are performance there isn’t much better.

Unfortunately, the SNP’s solution to this problem is not to provide more work and education for offenders, but instead to “widen” the definition of what meaningful activity actually is.

The Scottish Government told Holyrood’s justice committee that governors should have more flexibility when deciding what was and wasn’t purposeful activity.

If we’re not careful, that could mean what once comprised woodwork and mathematics now means darts and pool.

But it isn’t just the prisoners themselves who would benefit from an improved set-up in Scotland’s jails.

The Scottish Conservatives previously suggested prisoners working could contribute to some kind of victim fund, meaning they’re also paying their debt to society too, other than just passing the hours in a cell.

The SNP has been allowed to operate an extremely soft-touch approach, and has been egged on by Labour and the Liberal Democrats all the way.

It’s led to shorter sentences, serious and dangerous offenders released half-way through their time, and a criminal community which no longer fears going into the court room.

They know if they’re handed a jail sentence they won’t have to serve it, if it’s community payback they won’t have to see it out, and if it’s a fine they won’t have to pay it.

It’s clear we need a jail system that works for everyone; the inmates, the victims and the taxpayer.

Maybe then Scotland’s jails will have the right balance between protecting the public, rehabilitating the offender, and deterring the would-be criminal.

• Miles Briggs is Scottish Conservative candidate for Edinburgh Southern