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Prison Staff: Health and Safety — [Mr Laurence Robertson in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 18th March 2020.

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Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice Team Member) 9:30 am, 18th March 2020

Absolutely. I always remember that being put to me by the former Lord Advocate, Dame Elish Angiolini. She said, “They took someone’s childhood. They can forfeit their old age.” That seems to me to be a reasonable trade-off.

The question is not whether they should be punished—that is undoubtable—but where they should be retained. Many of our prison estates, as I have already touched on, are Victorian. I had this discussion with the chief executive of the Scottish Prison Service; we would be better acquiring a care home and making it semi-secure if we need to, although most of these people are hardly going to be running down our high streets on their zimmers, fleeing from a prison officer. The whole institution in which we retain them is inappropriate.

I mentioned the prison in Scotland because not only did they have to keep them secure from others who would have done them harm, but they could not even double them up. I thought it was funny at the time, but it was not really. They could not put them in a top bank because of their rheumatoid arthritis. It simply was not possible to double them up. It might be that as a society, we should be looking at acquiring different premises for those people.

The principle remains that they have to be punished, but the question is where they should be detained. Do we need to spend on that high security? For some of them, most certainly, but most of them are hardly going to be a threat. We could keep them under the same lock and key as a dementia ward in many instances, I would have thought. That would be easier for us and better for the staff.

There is also the question of throughput care. The great tragedy is the skills that prison officers have. I remember being at a showing of the movie “The Angels’ Share”, which I thought was quite beneficial in trying to challenge young people about their behaviour, and I remember a prison officer’s commenting that he spent more with time with those young people than he did with his own kids in his own family. Yet when they left the estate, despite the bond he had created and the fact that in many instances he had become a father figure, he could not relate to them. We have to get the balance. That officer would not want trouble when he is out with his family, taking them places, but there are skills that the prison officers can take out into the community.

First, we have to get other agencies to come into the prison earlier and more often—often they do not—to take their responsibility, as opposed to leaving everything with the Prison Service until the prisoner is discharged beyond the prison gate; and secondly, we should look at the opportunity for how we can use those skills and maintain the through care. We all know that the reason why so many people come back in through the revolving door is that they fall by the wayside and the person who was keeping them on the road was that particular prison officer.

I simply want to sum up, Mr Robertson. You have given me a great deal of latitude. I put on the record my thanks to the Prison Service and its staff. I ask the Minister: what steps will be taken not simply on coronavirus and the staff, but to address the underlying issues that are looming—and already exist—in the prison estate on staffing levels, staff morale, violence against prison officers and the drugs cocktail situation, as well as the growing issues of through care and in particular an elderly population? That is a big task, and we face many tasks at the moment, but we can no more expect our hospital staff to be heroic than we can expect our prison staff—who are being heroic—to be so. Not only must we give them the thanks to which they are entitled but, more importantly, in our privileged position as legislators, we must take steps to action plans to protect them.