Prison Visiting Committees

The Scottish Government is set to proceed with plans to scrap Scotland’s Prison Visiting Committees despite widespread opposition to the plans.

The current system of 16 committees is set to be replaced by three professional monitors working under Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons (HMCIP).

Prison visitors have existed in Scotland since the 15th century with the first visiting committees formed in the 19th century. There are currently over 240 volunteer members of prison visiting committees in Scotland withe each committee attached to every prison, young offenders’ institution and legalised police cell (LPC)  in Scotland.

I recently visited Saughton prison and met with the local members of the committee. They are allowed to conduct unannounced and unrestricted visits, speak to prisoners, monitor facilities and ensure human rights guidelines are upheld. Official inspections by HMCIP are not unannounced, can be many months apart and prisoners are not met.

Under original proposals, covered previously on this blog, the Scottish Government intended to scrap prison visiting committees completely, replacing them with a prisoner advocacy service.

After receiving resoundingly negative feedback on their plans the Scottish Government came back with the suggestion of three individual monitors to cover the whole Scotland alongside the prisoner advocacy service.

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice has announced that the monitors will “possess previous high level experience of working within a prison service”.  In other words it will likely be ex-governors and civil servants monitoring and inspecting former colleagues and friends. I cannot see how this will be independent and impartial and am concerned about the implications.

This lack of independence could cause Scotland problems meeting UN guidelines on human rights. We will end up with three monitors replacing 240 voluntary committee members. Moreover new monitors will not be able to deal with individual complaints from prisoners and, according to the Scottish Government’s own figures, the new system will end up costing more than prison visiting committees it seeks to replace.

The proposal simply don’t make sense. Prison visiting committees have strong cross-party support. But it will need people to write in and make their views known to the Scottish government. If you share my views then please consider writing to all of your local MSPs to make them aware of your support for prison visiting committees.