The Inverclyde prison decision: is this the end of penal populism?

Jim WatsonJim Watson, Communications and Information co-ordinator with Positive Prison? Positive Futures considers some of the politics in relation to the decision not to proceed with HMP Inverclyde. Positive Prison? Positive Futures is a community of interest which draws upon the shared lived experiences of people who are or have been subject to punishment.

The decision to not go ahead with the proposed national and regional centre for women in Inverclyde was correct. The evidence shows that women offenders experience a different pathway through jails and that community sentences have a better success rate at reducing reoffending with women. Within our group there are women who argue, from the lived experience of both, that community sentencing is preferable to prison.

The only dissenting voice that I have heard comes from someone with lots of experience within the prison system. They were angry at the misrepresentation of Inverclyde as a “super-jail” and that it was possibly the best that we could get in an age of austerity and long planning horizons for such public works. If this lone voice is correct …

One of the more surprising elements regarding the HMP Inverclyde issue is the unity of opposition and the lack of a voice advocating in its favour.

“Penal populism” is a new term to me although the concept is one that is very familiar. Essentially it is the argument that, in a democracy, politicians should follow public opinion when forming their policies. In criminal justice it means the pursuit of penal policies that are designed to win votes rather than reduce crime or promote justice, and the policies are always more punitive in nature.

The mantra was, and to an extent still is, “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”. This is a perfect example of political spin – a general commitment to do something but without committing yourself to anything specific whilst also appearing to appeal to various actors in the arena. Tough on crime is a given for all parties – in essence the biggest condemnation in political circles is that you are “soft” on crime. Usually this relates to improving conditions or the provision of facilities to ease the period of punishment. Some of the proposals for HMP Inverclyde were very progressive with the design brief being more for a healing approach rather than punishment, and at no point was any of this decried as being soft on crime.

As for being tough on the causes, those on the left of the political spectrum will adopt the position that this phrase relates to attacking the underlying issues that contribute to criminal activity – poverty, hopelessness, social isolation, substance misuse etc. Meanwhile, those who are from the right wing perspective take this to mean tough action on those who commit crime – longer sentences, harsher regimes and no “luxuries”.

For example, in October the Daily Record ran a story stating that the Scottish Prison Service were considering allowing children to have sleepovers with their mothers in the new prison. This was supported by Labour and Families Outside whereas the Conservatives objected to it on the basis that “prison is a place of punishment”. The Conservative view was backed in the public poll by a margin of 63% against sleepovers to 37% supporting the proposal.

So does this decision indicate we are moving to a more progressive debate about our penal institutions? Is it too much to hope that our politicians have dropped the tactic of labelling policies they don’t like as being “soft on crime”. Are we finally going to develop an approach to justice that is based on evidence and on what actually works to reduce reoffending? This is the great political paradox in criminal justice – it has been argued we would be more progressive without political interference but it is politicians who make the decisions and provide the resources. Does the HMP Inverclyde decision represent a powerful paradigm shift in this process? Will electoral advantage take second place to a consensus approach to true justice?

Now raise your hand if you are in favour of votes for prisoners . . .

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