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Barlinnie Special Unit

Volume 978: debated on Tuesday 12 February 1980

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[ Mr. Peter Morrison.]

2.11 am

The Scottish Office is not universally admired as a centre of progress and reform, and neither is the Scottish prison system regarded as the undisputed leader in the quest for a sane, civilised and effective system of correction and control for those of Caledonia's wilder spirits who need the restraining hand of the law upon them.

I introduce my subject for tonight's Adjournment debate in this way, because it is a fact that the Barlinnie special unit, on the East side of Glasgow and adjoining Barlinnie prison, was started in 1972 and has achieved its present success—a most impressive success, as I shall hope to demonstrate—more in spite of, rather than because of, the background whence it came.

The Barlinnie experiment was, and is, based on the premise that lifers and other hard nut offenders will respond positively to being treated like human beings. Far from their period in prison proving to be, as it were, a postgraduate course in criminal activity, with the right sort of treatment, the offender, however bad his record, can be, and usually is, reclaimed for a useful role in society. That is what Barlinnie proves.

Conditions at Barlinnie sometimes strike the ordinary member of the public as rather bizarre, and certainly provide a contrast to the rigid discipline of the ordinary prison. There are, for example, normally no restrictions on inward or outward mail. Inmates can also make or receive unlimited telephone calls on the unit's pay-phone.

The staff employed at the unit are, of course, specially chosen—prison officers who combine a "firm-but-fair" general approach to the job with a considerable psychological insight into the mentality of prisoners, or at least that is the theory.

Inevitably, of course, the ratio of staff to prisoners is high by comparison with ordinary prisons. And that means, too, that the cost of operating at Barlinnie will be rather greater than for the normal prison.

Is this extra expense justified? After two visits to Barlinnie, I have no hesitation in answering that question in the affirmative.

Three prisoners have already been released, and two more are due out shortly. Furthermore, their star prisoner, Jimmy Boyle, an internationally known sculptor and author, is due out in, I think, 1981. I have met, and had long talks with, Boyle on each of the two occasions that I have visited Barlinnie. If ever there was a case of a human being reclaimed, it is Boyle.

A graduate of the Gorbals slums in Glasgow, Boyle had a most unenviable record as a Glasgow hoodlum and stand-over man—and a murderer to boot. Moreover, rumour had it that he was an "agent" of the notorious Kray brothers, a "hit man" in the modern terminology. Today, the unquestioned moving spirit of the Barlinnie special unit is the same Jimmy Boyle—cultivated, charming, intelligent and with some impressive works of sculpture to show to the visitor he escorts around the unit.

But at this point, the weather gets rougher. Despite international interest in this "experiment"—personally, I do not know how much longer such a success story ought to go on being described as an experiment—the simple fact is that under both types of Government recently in power there has been a marked lack of enthusiasm on the part of the Scottish Office for the work of the unit. Partly, I believe this has been due to the quite fantastic publicity which Jimmy Boyle's artistic and other activities have attracted to the unit—with a consequent increase in the difficulty of dealing with other, less glamourous prisoners. Partly, I think it may be due to the innate conservatism of the Scottish Office, and the Home Office in England, where, despite the fact that it was a Conservative Administration—with the hon. Member for North Angus and Mearns (Mr. Buchanan-Smith) prominently to the fore as the Minister most directly responsible—which launched the scheme, there has seemingly always been a suspicion of new-fangled ideas, particularly those that appeared to run counter to the philosophy set out in the Old Testament about crime and punishment, and suchlike notions beloved of our Victorian grandparents.

Whatever the reason, there has been, not least under the previous Labour Administration, with one or two honourable exceptions, a marked unwillingness to encourage the present so-called experiment, together with a quite remarkable series of "institutional pressures" designed to play down Operation Barlinnie.

Perhaps the most notorious was the case of Ken Murray, one of the senior prison officers most closely associated with the Barlinnie experiment, and who for so-called "career reasons" was sacked from the special unit against his will and very much against his colleagues' wishes in the unit. He is currently serving in a small prison near Glasgow and is rumoured to be contemplating a move to Australia.

If he is lost to the Scottish service, it will be a terrible waste, and a terrible indictment of its bureaucratic approach. The fact is that he is amongst the most active and progressive of Scots prison officers, has studied at the Institute of Criminology in Cambridge—where I met him—and the Scottish Office can ill-afford to lose such talent.

My plea tonight is to both the Scottish Office and the Home Office to stop hiding our light under a bushel. In the view of many, this Barlinnie exercise is a dramatically successful demonstration of what can be done when humane, progressive and intelligent policies are introduced to our perennial problem of what to do with those we still find it necessary to incarcerate for long periods.

For the sake of future British society, we owe it to ourselves and to our children not to turn away from a major breakthrough in penal reform.

2.19 am

I greatly welcome the opportunity which this debate provides to go into the matters raised by the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Mr. Kerr). I do not propose to deal with his strictures on the Scottish Office or with his criticisms of the way in which Mr. Murray has been treated by the Scottish Office.

The reason for that is that the subject of this debate is the extension to England and Wales of the Barlinnie special unit penal experiment. That is an important and constructive subject which ought to be considered, rather than raking back over the past to see whether the Scottish Office, under different Administrations, has shown the degree of enthusiasm which the hon. Gentleman would wish to see for this experiment.

Barlinnie prison is fairly and squarely within the responsibilities of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland. The operation and monitoring of the Barlinnie special unit does not fall to the Home Office. None the less, we naturally keep in the closest touch with our Scottish colleagues, and we are anxious to learn from their experiences and experiments.

The special unit at Barlinnie was set up following the recommendations of a working party in the Scottish Home and Health Department on the treatment of certain male long-term prisoners and potentially violent prisoners, which reported in 1971. The working party's main task was to consider what arrangements should be made for the treatment of certain inmates who were likely to be detained in custody for very long periods or with propensities to violence towards staff. Prison staff in Scotland were particularly concerned about violent prisoners serving long determinate sentences and, since the abolition of the death penalty, about the prospect of very violent prisoners serving life sentences who might take the view that they had nothing to lose by violent and recalcitrant behaviour, and about the effect that these prisoners might have on others. In the course of its work the working party visited Grendon and Parkhurst C wing, a point to which I shall return.

The main conclusion of the working party was that a special unit should be provided within the Scottish penal system for the treatment of known violent inmates, those considered potentially violent and selected long-term inmates. It was envisaged that the regime in the unit would be psychiatrically orientated, and that for this purpose there should be psychiatric support, that staff should be a mixture of discipline and nursing officers and that the traditional officer-inmate relationship should be modified to approximate more closely to a therapist-patient basis while retaining a firm but fair discipline system. The unit would have its own governor and would be run separately from any other establishment.

The recommendation that a purpose-built unit be constructed within the grounds of Perth prison proved to be impracticable for various reasons. The only available building which readily lent itself to adaptation for the purpose was a block at Barlinnie prison which had previously been used to hold female prisoners. This was refurbished and the unit opened in February 1973. The first prisoners were admitted shortly afterwards.

Though the unit is within the perimeter wall of Barlinnie it is separated from the main prison by another wall. It has its own staff complement—a governor and 14 officers, four of whom are in the nursing grades. The officers are all volunteers and are required to appear before a selection board for assessment as to suitability. Those who are successful attend a special course at the Scottish Prison Service College before taking up duty in the unit. The course includes a visit to both Grendon and Broadmoor. In addition to these permanent staff a consultant psychiatrist and psychologist give regular sessions at the unit.

Ten places are available in the unit but no more than seven inmates have ever been detained there at one time. At present there are seven, of whom five are serving sentences of life imprisonment and two are serving determinate sentences. It can be seen, therefore, that the unit represents a heavy staffing commitment and the ratio of staff to inmates has always been high compared with other establishments. Perhaps at this point I should emphasise that the Scottish prison service has more officers per inmate than the service in England and Wales. Furthermore, in Scotland the commitment of prison officers to court duties is substantially less because the police there do a great deal of the escort duties.

I turn now to the regime in the unit. Apart from the domestic duties of the unit, which are shared among the inmates, activities have included small-scale production—for example chessmen—education programmes and activities of a recreational or therapeutic nature such as sculpture and writing. Because of the limited space and lack of facilities, it has not been practicable to introduce a work routine of the type which would apply in a larger establishment, and each prisoner has, in effect, been made responsible for his own daily programme. A feature of the operation of the unit is that staff and inmates, as a community, regularly discuss and make recommendations on matters relating to the domestic operation of the unit. It is an essential feature of the operation of the unit that the staff-inmate relationship should be a close one and should attempt to break down traditional antagonisms. Visits and personal possessions are allowed on a more generous scale than normal, and inmates are allowed to wear their own clothing.

A prisoner is recommended for transfer to the unit by the governor of the prison where he is serving his sentence. An assessment team from the unit comprising the governor, consultant psychiatrist and two members of the staff interview the prisoner and the staff who have had charge of him. The Scottish Home and Health Department takes the final decision as to a prisoner's suitability for the unit. The case is, however, discussed by the unit community—that is, both inmates and staff—before a recommendation is made. Thus inmates already in the unit have some involvement in the selection of their companions.

The history of the unit and some aspects of its operation having been described, what assessment can be made of it? How do our Scottish colleagues view the unit, which has now been in existence for seven years?

I do not make too much of the point, but I should make it clear that there are no current plans to set up additional units on similar lines in Scotland. That is partly a matter of resources, since, as I have already explained, the unit represents a heavy staffing commitment which could not readily be provided on an extensive scale. It is expensive to run. It is partly a matter of need. On the whole, the unit has successfully dealt with the problem which led to its setting up.

The Scottish Home and Health Department does not make extravagant claims for the success of the Barlinnie unit. In the seven years that it has been open only 16 prisoners have passed through it. Of that number, four have subsequently been released from prison. Two prisoners were returned to normal prisons because they proved very difficult to manage even in the unit. One of these two seriously assaulted another inmate—the only such assault in the unit. The real claim to success is that, with the one exception I have just mentioned, the unit has succeeded in containing a number of prisoners whose previous records of violence to both staff and other prisoners had been appalling.

It has also had some success in coming to terms with prisoners who were difficult to handle because of a deep-rooted sense of inadequacy. It is generally felt in the Scottish prison service that since the unit was opened there has been less serious violence and a reduction of tension elsewhere in the prison system in Scotland. Whilst this is hard to quantify there have, since the opening of the unit, been very few serious assaults on staff in other prisons in Scotland involving the use of a weapon. The number of minor and technical assaults has remained at much the same level. This is a remarkable achievement. On the other hand, no official claims are made as to the rehabilitative effect of the unit. Given the small number of men who have passed through it, it is bound to be some considerable time before anyone can make a judgment on the long-term benefits.

Without attempting to do that. I think that we should consider the Barlinnie unit in context. We must do that when considering the lessons to be learnt for England and Wales. Certainly the idea of a therapeutic regime is not a novel one. The prison service in England and Wales has been active in experimenting with these ideas, the most notable example being Grendon, which opened in 1962. As I said at the start of my speech, the working party which led to the setting up of the Barlinnie unit visited Grendon and also Parkhurst C wing.

It must also be borne in mind that there is a great difference in size between the prison services on either side of the border, with the total Scottish prison population being only about one-eighth of the total for England and Wales. The working party was well aware of the differences in scale when seeking ideas for dealing with difficult prisoners, in particular those with severe behavioural or personality problems.

Thus in Scotland, Barlinnie has been developed, with considerable success, to meet a particular need. For England and Wales we have Grendon, which was established as a psychiatric prison to investigate and treat offenders suffering from disorders which call for a psychiatric approach and to explore the problem of the psychopath. In practice it has an important role in treating psychopathic offenders with the intelligence and motivation to benefit from group therapy. It is the only prison of its kind in the United Kingdom and the largest in Europe.

Grendon relies heavily on group counselling as a means of enabling prisoners to discuss their problems and relieve their anxieties or aggression. Treatment of this nature in a prison depends for its success on enlightened staff—inmate relationships. Prison officers have an important therapeutic role—as in the Barlinnie unit—and have contributed much to Grendon's success. It would not be right to claim, however, that the Grendon regime is the same as that at the Barlinnie unit.

The C wing at Parkhurst—though temporarily out of commission as a special facility while D wing is being rebuilt—illustrates another aspect of our more varied regimes. It provides, under the supervision of medical and other staff, a secure environment and structured regime for prisoners who suffer from mental disorder and who could not cope with the demands which the community at Grendon makes on its members. The C wing regime, in addition to helping prisoners cope with their sentences, frees the rest of the system of a number of otherwise difficult and disruptive prisoners. I must make it clear, however, that the concept and method are by no means the same as in Barlinnie.

At a number of English prisons hospital annexes have been established which in general provide a regime less rigid than in a normal prison for those unable to cope with normal prison life. One of these, at Wormwood Scrubs, operates as a therapeutic community supervised by two visiting consultant psychiatrists.

In addition, I should point out that the far greater size of the English system, with its use of dispersal prisons makes it possible for violent and disruptive prisoners to be handled in ways which could not be available in Scotland. But the examples that I have given of the special provisions made in our own prison system show that a facility along the lines of the Barlinnie unit would be entirely compatible with what already exists in England and Wales.

We do not, however, have specific plans to introduce a similar unit, but we are taking the utmost interest in the Barlinnie experiment. Indeed, we have active plans to study its future and see the lessons that can be learnt from it for England and Wales. We have arranged for senior Home Office officials to visit Barlinnie shortly, for the specific purpose of considering whether anything comparable is necessary, feasible and desirable on this side of the border.

For the moment, my view is that the argument so far put forward for such an experiment is cogent and impressive. But, of course, before deciding whether and when any plans should be made for such an experiment south of the border we shall have to await the results of the further examination of the Barlinnie unit that is taking place, and also take into account the inescapable fact that there are many other changes and improvements competing for a slice of our budget.

I am encouraged by that part of the Minister's reply. Can he tell us whether the senior Home Office officials who have been asked to look into this will also consider what I regard as the real progress at Barlinnie, namely, a reduction in the number of rules and a more generous interpretation of those that remain? That has given prisoners and staff an opportunity to break away from the normal tight institutionalisation normally found in prisons. If that principle could be applied throughout our prisons we might give prisoners the self-respect necessary to reform themselves, and we might also give it to the staff to help them to reform themselves.

The features described by the hon. Member for Hammersmith, North (Mr. Soley) form part of the Barlinnie regime. Obviously, the senior Home Office officials who will look at Barlinnie will examine the implications and potential for development along those lines in England and Wales.

It is fair to say that even in Scotland the Barlinnie unit is conceived as having a special role for a special purpose in relation to particular prisoners who have had specific problems. It is in that context that it should be looked at, and it is in that context that it will be looked at in a serious and constructive way

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes to Three o'clock am