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Scotland: Another editorial.
Why porridge needs more ingredients
Sunday Herald leader

Do prisons matter? They are, by their nature, marginal -- places we put people we want out of our communities, out of sight and out of mind. They are where we put people who cross the boundaries of acceptable behaviour, in the belief that when they come out they will no longer transgress. Prisons are mostly grim and old, which is probably how, as deterrents, we think they ought to be. So just as prisoners are cast out of mainstream society, prisons exist largely out of mainstream public life. But they matter deeply. They say so much about the fundamental rule of law and how we implement it, about the rights of pariahs and about whether we are serious about investing in the future of those who have broken the rules, for our own sakes and safety as well as theirs. They matter because of what they say about society. And they matter because they cost a lot -- nearly quarter of a billion pounds in Scotland every year.

They also matter because they are not working. Scotland imprisons a higher proportion of its population than most other European countries , yet nearly half of our prisoners re-offend within two years of release. The vast majority are in for less than six months, and inadequate -- if any -- attempts are made to tackle the 70% illiteracy rate among prisoners, to have them address their offending or to prepare them for their release. The revelation last week that a private company is contracted by the Scottish Executive to provide retoxification programmes to some drug users just before they are released in order to reduce the chances of overdose is a sign of realism about the regime -- but also a pretty bleak signal of what we are expecting of our prisons.

The current review of Scottish prisons tells another dismal story, this time about the government's mismanagement of a complex issue. An arm's-length agency, the Scottish Prison Service, has its own agenda of confronting the power of the prison officers' union and moving to private provision. There are ethical questions about whether it is right to have people make profits from depriving citizens of their liberty, but more significant is an apparent conflict of interest: a few global companies make their money out of high crime rates, and will make even more money out of higher crime rates and poor rehabilitation. And their lower costs are down to fewer warders, restricting the human contact without which rehabilitation is a non-starter. That kind of incentive makes no sense.

If the SPS gets its way -- and so far it seems to have an astonishing ability to cajole or bully ministers to go with its plans -- nearly four in 10 of Scotland's prisoners will be privately incarcerated, the highest proportion in the world. It is easy to call for the agency's director, Tony Cameron, to resign, as opposition MSPs did with the publication of last week's justice committee report. Better, though, to make him explain why he does not rate his own agency's efficiency, why he appears unwilling to do anything to change it and why he does not rate his service's ability to build new prison blocks. What kind of motivation does that provide for his staff? Why does he seem so defeatist? And how can any public servant in post-devolution Scotland think it is acceptable to operate as if being at arm's length means being contemptuously out of reach? There are many issues where the Executive needs to return to the drawing board. The most important recommendation from the justice committee last week was that decisions about prison capacity can no longer be conducted in a vacuum, as if the building of prisons had nothing to do with attempts to bring down crime rates -- or to do with the positive evidence concerning a growing range of alternatives to custody, or indeed to do with the growing doubts that private finance of public services represents good accounting or value for money.

We need some fresh, imaginative thinking on penal reform. The challenges are to see how the prison population can be reduced by use of better, more effective and cheaper sentences; and how crime can be tackled at source, in families, communities and schools, to nip criminal activity in the bud and create fulfilling alternative life chances. A tricky part of this falls to judges and sheriffs, who must adjust to a new penal political climate. That will raise legitimate concerns about the independence of the judiciary. But it is a debate in which every part of the system has to work together. This is about joined-up government for a better Scotland, something that has been badly lacking from the prisons issue so far.

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