Barlinnie prison and change

I presented my research in Barlinnie prison today, to an audience of about 70 people. Mostly prison staff, but also a few prisoners, the management team of the prison, a few folk from SPS headquarters, plus assorted others. This was to get people talking about how Barlinnie might become more rehabilitative. This is the aim of its Development Programme, along with adopting a person-based approach.

I thought beforehand that this would be a tough crowd. In the past, I have come across prison staff who very much have a ‘lock them up, they only have themselves to blame’ attitude. They would probably find my research wanting because it largely ignores the ‘wrongs’ people have done. Instead of looking at why they might deserve prison, I pretty much only talk about the (mostly negative) impact of their sentence.

But not this was not the case. Everyone there recognised that  the barriers that prisoners face when they come out make it so hard for ex-prisoners to move on with their lives and felt the injustice of this. People in the audience gave several examples of  where quite a simple solution could stop people coming back to prison, but where these solutions are stupidly out of reach at the moment. For example, someone might have a job lined up, but unable to take it up because they don’t have housing in place. Other things have gotten harder recently, like the incredibly punitive sanctions for not turning up for Job Centre appointments (up to 3 years no Job Seeker’s Allowance) that make even a minimum of financial stability elusive.

Amongst Barlinnie staff, from the governor to the hall staff who attended today, there is a real enthusiasm to do the most they can to turn prisoners’ lives around. But where does the SPS role end? One solution to the housing crisis in Glasgow we discussed was for SPS to start building temporary housing for prisoners leaving prison. It was rightly pointed out, though, that SPS should not take responsibility for other parts of state provision that are failing. Instead, it all needs to come together in  a way that seems difficult to achieve. Could it be possible for the SPS to demand change from other government departments by pointing out that it cannot do its job of rehabilitating prisoners, and avoiding more crime, if housing is not available, employment is elusive and benefits not forthcoming?

We also discussed how the SPS is already filling the gaps in other areas of state provision, by housing the homeless (who often offend on purpose), dealing with the mentally ill and providing a ‘break’ for vulnerable people from the tough circumstances in their lives. People offend on purpose to have a roof over their head or to curb a drug habit and sheriffs still imprison people to get the help they cannot access outside. Again, other parts of the state have to step up, so that the SPS can focus on those who deserve a punishment of imprisonment, but within that should be given the best prospect of a positive future.

If anyone would like to contribute to the Development Programme, staff at Barlinnie are keen to hear from people and gain their insight – please email