Successive Holyrood administrations have provided a dizzying array of legislative bells and whistles to make Scots feel all warm and pure. They are all well-meaning, of course, but some were tinged by a degree of sanctimonious self-indulgence, such as the “named person” proposals, and sank accordingly. A similar fate lay in store for the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act 2012, which was badly drafted and ridiculed out of court by judges who grew weary of clumsy attempts by police to criminalise innocent young men guilty of nothing more than singing dodgy songs and waving political flags.
Occasionally, cracks become apparent in this carefully constructed liberal facade and through them we are granted a glimpse of something more sinister. Curiously, these appear in the realm of crime and punishment, a jurisdiction in which Conservatives are usually to be found fulfilling their fantasies.
Since the dawn of devolution, the Scottish political classes have adopted a reactionary approach to matters of justice. The same people compete among themselves to disparage Donald Trump’s attitude to law and order, but he’s only been around for two-and-a-half years. In the post-devolution era, Scotland’s record in this area matches those of small gangster republics.
In 1999, taxpayers were landed with a bill for tens of millions of pounds after the then justice minister, Jim Wallace, had diverted European funds earmarked to end the barbaric practice of slopping out in Scottish prisons. Thousands of prisoners proceeded successfully to sue the Scottish government. Wallace, meanwhile, became Scotland’s deputy first minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords. Incompetence is no bar to advancement when you’re a Scottish politician.
In 2014, the Scottish government wretchedly betrayed its own instincts when it channelled its inner Daily Mail and refused prisoners the right to participate in the 2014 referendum on independence. Before this, and following a campaign by the influential Women for Independence group, it was forced reluctantly to ditch plans to build a new women’s prison in Scotland.
Calls for an inquiry into the brutality of the Scottish police during the miners’ strike in 1984-85 were consistently rebuffed by Scottish administrations, despite clear evidence of a case to answer by a force that has become increasingly unaccountable. In Scotland, we never have to wait long between high-profile cases of police incompetence or something more sinister. The family of Sheku Bayoh, the man who died a violent death in police custody in 2015, have another word for it: racism. In 2017, the Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights concluded that Police Scotland suffers from “institutional racism”. Still it escapes any level of independent scrutiny.
Police and judges form an unbreakable hand-in-glove bond to ensure that, while Scotland might strive to be one of the most enlightened wee nations on the planet, it is also one of the most draconian. Last week, the distressing case of Katie Allan was put before us once more. Enlightened Scotland held a mirror to its face and once more found something ugly and disfigured staring back. The 21-year-old took her own life last year in Scotland’s main young offenders facility at Polmont. The student had received a 16-month sentence after being found guilty of injuring a teenage boy while drink-driving. In spite of pleas from the lad’s parents, a Scottish judge did what comes naturally to Scottish judges and hit her with a stiff sentence.
Linda and Stuart Allan, her parents, believe she was bullied by other prisoners at Polmont and repeatedly strip-searched by staff who failed to act on her self-harm wounds. Last Tuesday, they published a report into prison suicides. It concluded: “The dominant culture within Scottish prisons is that suicide is inevitable.” This is reinforced by lengthy delays and a consistent absence of constructive recommendations in fatal accident inquiries (FAIs), which are mandatory after prison deaths.
The family reviewed data provided by the Scottish Prison Service on 258 prisoner deaths between 2008 and 2018 and found that at the end of last year 67 families were still waiting for FAIs to take place, some relating to deaths dating to 2014. On average, inquiries into prison suicides took more than two years to complete. The Allans’ report also found that, of 16 inquiries into prison suicides, all related to prisoners who took their own lives within six months of being in custody. Nearly half of the victims were under 30 and a haphazard, bordering on nonexistent, approach to mental healthcare was revealed.
This isn’t a problem, it’s a contagion. The Allans say that the prison service should be prosecuted for corporate manslaughter and human rights abuses. Scotland has effectively retained the death penalty, they add, and this is “no longer a jostling spectacle around the gallows but a hidden, invisible genocide”. A spokesperson for the SPS said an independent review of mental health care at Polmont would be reporting in the next few months.
Yet the Scottish prison is merely the last stop on a dark and brutal journey through our so-called justice system that starts with our hanging judges and their uniformed grunts on the street.