2 December 2009

Scots jails stuffed...

I’m not a big numbers man myself. Quantitative researchers, bundles of statistics tucked under their arms, can be intimidating characters for those of us who prefer more nuanced accounts of social experience. The edges of their categories can seem too sharp, their sometime claims to predictive power rather dubious. Never let it be said, however, that quantifying aspects of social life is without its uses. Such data can challenge our demographic assumptions, recognising particular types of social change and disrupt claims about society made by people from comfortable but unempirical armchairs, based on a loose calculation of the speaker’s impressions and understandings of the world.

In this context, I read with interest the Scottish Government’s Statistical Bulletin in its Crime and Justice Series entitled Prison Statistics Scotland: 2008-09. The chart (left) is culled from its electronic pages and represents the average daily prison population in Scotland from 1900 to 2008/09. As you can see, the line wobbles significantly in its yearly progress – but the leap in population in the middle of the 1960s has been (substantially) retained in subsequent years. The past ten years reflect a similar, increasing population. According to the statisticians, the number of Her Majesty’s lodgers kipping nightly at her pleasure increased by 6% from the previous year – and by an appalling 31% over the past 10 years since 1999-00.

Percentages can be a bit bamboozling – or at least, give an inflationary impression of what’s what with the world. In brute numerical terms, in 1999-00 the average daily population numbered 5,975 – including those on remand, untried persons, persons convicted but awaiting sentence. For last year, that average number was 7,835 souls – or 1,860 more prisoners than just 10 years ago. Highlighting the degree to which incarceration (and criminality) is a gendered phenomenon, 7,422 of the 2008/09 figure were male, 413 female. Men constituted a wildly dominant 95% of the total average daily population last year. Those particularly concerned with the phenomenon of female imprisonment, however, will be particularly concerned that since 1999/00, the average number of women in prison has almost doubled, increasing from 210 to 413.

On this last point, I have my ambivalences. In particular, while women’s groups do have a concerned voice in the political process, as is proper, this sometimes causes those discussing imprisonment to ignore the gendered character of the jail. The men’s movement by comparison, can seem demented and atavistic to broadly pro-feminist men. I’d certainly include myself in that category. One consequence of this is that gender is not deployed consistently as an important basis to understand prison policy by our senators. One can have particular sympathy for the stories of particular women and for example, the travails and cruelties which pregnancy and birth in penal circumstances inflict. Rather than enforcing broader questions about gender understandings in prison, by framing the debate in terms of women in prison, our discussion becomes bifurcated. We have one discussion on women in prison – and then blithely squander the gendered insight by progressing to talk about prison in the genderless abstract, ignoring the maleness of the population and implicated issues of masculinity. Which seems to me a rather curious thing to do, given the ordering role gender clearly plays in the production of the population, as profiled.

We might take comfort in the fact that, if international comparison is attempted, Scotland ‘only’ imprison 150 per 100,000 of the population. This comparing to 760 per 100,000 in the US and 629 in the Russian Federation. England and Wales even pips us by 2, slamming cell doors behind 152 people per 100,000 heads. You can see the whole 2008 chart on the right (click the pic for a clearer view). While we ought to exercise severe caution when drawing these international comparisons, they do give a flavour of where contemporary Scotland is on the scale. I’d like to see us rather lower on that scale, myself. As I like to harp on about, however, devolution must be about taking responsibility for our own choices. We constitute Scotland this way, set her policies in motion, build, retain and pay for these prisons. Political tittle-tattle, grimy law and order positioning aside – these are the challenges of devolution. Like deciding for ourselves whether assisted dying is permissible. Like choosing which path should be taken on education, primary, secondary, further or higher.

That is our responsibility. Lets live up to it.


  1. Hi Lallands,

    This is way off topic, I hope you don't mind. As a young engineer in the 1970's I was engaged in the construction of the sewers for the new male prison at Shotts, being built to accommodate the even then burgeoning prison population. (See there is a tenuous link of sorts.)

    I was surprised that the design of the system did not seem to contain any anti-escape measures to prevent prisoners wading waist deep through the effluvium to freedom, as seen so many times in the cinema and TV. However as the main sewer istelf was only 9" in diameter these might not have proved necessary.

    Incidentally, I have to laugh every time somebody escaping through a sewerage system is shown lifting a manhole cover in a road to peer out from underneath, usually supporting the weight of the cover on their head. These things weigh several hundredweight! On the very odd occasion I found myself needing to raise one (from the surface I should add) an assistant would hit it repeatedly with a 10 lb. sledgehammer to break the rust and grit sealing it in place and make it "dance" before the pair of us could attempt to lift it. Even then it was a sruggle. Handling manhole covers was at that time the biggest single source of industrial injury among operatives in my Local Authority Sewerage Department. (It is mechanised to some degree now.)

    Hope this adds some enlightment to the subject.


  2. Dear Rab,

    Somehow, even with prison yoga lessons, I'd be impressed if any of the souls locked away therein managed the achieve the "octopus" poise and slither through yon 9" escape-way.

    Your second point is all the more vital to know. Who knows, war, catastrophe - personal imprisonment - some day I might find myself in Chokey, making a bid for freedom. Confidently I'd espy the smooth metallic belly of the manhole cover - thrust my noggin upwards, confident in success - only to snap my little spine and tumble ragdoll-like into the gushing effluvium below.

    With this intelligence, I now see that much more planning will be needed, and muscular cronies to boot...

    Yours, in anticipation of future liberty,