CUTBACKS to the welfare state are piling the pressure on Scotland’s jails, prison chiefs have claimed.
Colin McConnell, chief executive of the Scottish Prison Service, has claimed the “prevailing climate of welfare retraction” means the country’s jails have become “the only truly universal social service of last resort”.
The outspoken prison boss has called for a “serious public and political debate” about the future and functions of jails.
Justice Secretary Michael Matheson has already signalled a push towards handing criminals even more community-based sentences, smaller jails and a bid to stop reoffending rates through education.
One of the first steps will be to electronically tag many of the 1000 prisoners who are on remand, but a bigger use of community-based sentences is also in the offing.
In a speech to Cambridge University, Mr McConnell said: “Prisons are generally disturbing places: sites of concentrated poverty and trauma; holding pens for some of the most vulnerable and threatening (real and perhaps imagined) members of society – the human detritus from broken-glass parks.
“In the prevailing climate of welfare retraction, prisons have sadly become the only truly universal social service of last resort.
“We need a serious public and political debate about the future role and function of the prison. Such a public discourse, is, in my view, long overdue.”
Mr McConnell, in a speech given earlier this summer, added that the SPS would be expanding its rehabilitation efforts.
He revealed plans to hire more throughcare support officers, whose job would be to help inmates in the transition from prison life to the outside world in a bid to stop them falling back into a life of crime.
Since gaining power in 2007, the SNP administration has ramped up the use of community sentences to alleviate pressure on the country’s overcrowded jails.
But there has been widespread criticism that many offenders are still evading punishment for their crimes because they simply don’t bother to pay their fines or complete their community-based sentences.
Courts send out nearly 500 warning letters about unpaid fines every day, despite threats of arrest and imprisonment.
Last month, official figures revealed that £4.2 million worth of fines issued in the past three years were “in arrears”.
Nearly £1m a year has to be written off because it is never repaid.
Scottish Conservative shadow justice secretary Douglas Ross said: “There’s nothing wrong about debating the future role of prisons.
“But what Mr McConnell has to remember is that one of jail’s key functions is to keep the public safe.
“This is not the first time he has suggested inmates are the real victims, rather than the people whose life they made a misery.
“And to blame the size of the prison population on vital changes to welfare is clearly a stretch.”
Prison chief Mr McConnell has long courted controversy with ideas such as in-cell telephones.