At present, visiting committees are allowed to make unannounced visits to Scottish prisons to inspect inmates’ facilities and deal with prisoner complaints. However, under plans being proposed by the Scottish Government, these voluntary bodies would be abolished and replaced by a new advocacy service.
These proposals have sparked widespread concern amongst groups with knowledge and experience of the prison service such as the Scottish Consortium of Crime and Criminal Justice and the vast majority of organisation consulted on the proposals voiced concerns.
Prison visiting committees are comprised of unpaid local volunteer members, motivated to take part due to concerns about prison issues.
They are charged with looking out for the welfare of inmates, many of whom are from chaotic backgrounds, have a poor education or suffer from mental illness. People have been sent to prison to pay for their crimes but it is a mark of a decent society to ensure that they do so in humane conditions with proper safeguards.
The independence of visiting committees is one of the key benefits of the system, ensuring a fair-minded assessment of inmates’ conditions. The advocacy service proposed by the Scottish Government would not provide the same function and would lose the degree of impartiality enjoyed by visiting committees.
I’ll be meeting with members of the Edinburgh visiting committee next week to learn more about their work and to discuss their concerns as the Scottish Government continues to consult on its proposals.