Small and local: Scandinavian prison model for Scotland?

Alec SpencerAlec Spencer is convenor of the Scottish Consortium on Crime and Criminal Justice and is an Honorary Professor at Stirling University. He was previously a prison governor and Director of Rehabilitation and Care (SPS).

I welcome both Michael Matheson’s decision to call a halt to the proposed building of a ‘super-jail’ for women and Kenny MacAskill’s call here for consensus on penal policy in Scotland ( For too many years politicians in Scotland have been guided by what they thought the public wanted and their desire to win over voters. Tabloids apart, the people of Scotland want a fairer society and also want politicians to lead by positive example. We should end opposition for opposition’s sake. Our politicians need to show respect to each other, and by so doing earn the respect of our nation. We were able to reach a consensus, for example on the banning of smoking in public places, and we can do it now for our criminal justice and penal policy. Michael Matheson’s decision and the widespread support that followed could mark the beginning of a new phase.

We have had more than enough commissions (two established by Kenny himself) and it is time to follow the wisdom of the McLeish (Scotland’s Choice – Report of the Scottish Prisons Commission) and Angiolini (Commission on Women Offenders) reports and their recommendations. In principle they are about reducing the prison population and providing appropriate resources in the community to support people who might otherwise end up in the criminal justice system and ultimately in prison. Of course, prevention starts even earlier, in terms of literacy, health, poverty and other social inequalities – but I have always maintained that the criminal justice system cannot cure the ills of society. We are dealing with the effects not the causes. And so, until we can address the causes, we must focus on how we address the effects, which can be seen even more acutely with vulnerable individuals. That means shifting our resources away from punishment (which we know does not work) to support which can change lives.

Angiolini was clear that local integrated community provision was the key to dealing with women who have a multiplicity of needs. She also advocated small locally-based facilities for dealing with women in secure settings. Why is it in Scotland we have a love affair with large prisons? Our Scandinavian colleagues do not seem to want to build 700 place units, the standard prison size in Scotland these days, as the table below illustrates:

Country Prison population Number of prisons Average size of prison
Denmark 3774 52 72
Finland 3011 30 100
Norway 3842 42 91
Sweden 5525 79 70
Scotland 7434 15 495


We need to think about much smaller but significantly more units, not just simply to house women, but also men. Small is beautiful – in that it can be very local (not just 500 places at Peterhead for the whole of Grampian and the N.E.). Regimes are more effective when smaller and more intimate. Larger prisons may be cheaper to run for the prison service, but the higher cost to society comes with them being less effective in changing lives. We are not talking about a return to a proliferation of sordid local lock-ups of the 18th century but units working to modern standards and informed by best practice. Huge prisons remain edifices for generations. How can one close a 700 place prison? Yet small 25 or 50 place units are easier to open or close as need arises. We also have to think about where control of such small facilities lie? The finance could be through local authorities/CJA’s who could then choose whether custody or community was appropriate. SPS could re-think and re-structure to hold the smaller number of dangerous offenders serving long sentences. Local communities would generally cater for remands and those requiring shorter periods of custody.

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  1. […] of the Scottish Consortium on Crime and Criminal Justice, has called for Scotland to follow the Scandinavian model of small, local […]