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Penninghame Open Prison

Volume 301: debated on Wednesday 26 November 1997

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

1.29 pm

I am grateful for this opportunity to raise matters that are of great importance, not only to my constituents, but to the wider public. I am also grateful to the Minister for Home Affairs and Devolution, Scottish Office, for attending to respond to my points.

I shall highlight two general issues relating specifically to open prisons in Scotland and arising from incidents that occurred at Her Majesty's prison at Penninghame, which is located in my constituency. Penninghame is set in attractive countryside about four miles north of the market town of Newton Stewart. Its main building is the mansion house of the formerly private estate that now provides the prison with its grounds.

Penninghame was first established as an open prison in 1954, amid some controversy that necessitated the attendance of the Minister's distant predecessor at a public meeting in Newton Stewart to explain the arrangements. Since then, Penninghame has housed prisoners—many of them long term—in open conditions. Its capacity is for about 85 prisoners, but it is currently operating well below full capacity.

The prisoners fall within the Scottish Prison Service's category D, defined as prisoners who are considered not to be a danger to the public, who can be given the opportunity to serve their sentence in open conditions. Penninghame offers a rehabilitative regime to prisoners who are working towards their release. From the original controversy surrounding its opening, the prison has been well integrated into the local community.

A proportion of prisoners take advantage of outplacements in the community—some travel as far as Stranraer, which is about 25 miles from Newton Stewart. It is fair to say that new opportunities for work are constantly sought in activities such as forestry work or work in social projects, helping the elderly or infirm. The prison contains a large amount of woodland and farm, and includes a large garden with an associated garden centre, which is open to public and staff for the sale of local produce. That garden and garden centre constitute the main source of employment for prisoners and are an important point of contact between the prisoners and prison and the local community. Such contacts are highly valued within Newton Stewart and the surrounding area.

Much of the prisoners' work goes to help voluntary organisations that might not otherwise be able to carry out their role within their own slender funds, so the arrangements with the prison enable them to achieve more than they could otherwise do. Recently, a constituent of mine who is involved in running a day centre told me that the centre would certainly have shut down some time ago had he not had the daily assistance of four or five prisoners from Penninghame open prison.

A recent incident occurred at a local gala day near Penninghame, when some prisoners involved in the preparation for the gala day gained access to alcohol and subsequently—not surprisingly—had to be taken back to the prison. The consequences for the prisoners were extremely serious: they lost their open status, and were transferred back to a closed prison establishment.

The incident gained more media publicity than it deserved, because of some other events that had occurred at the prison, but one of the most remarkable aspects of the case was how the gala day committee insisted that it was an isolated and exaggerated incident, and stated how much it valued and would continue to value the involvement of Penninghame prisoners in the gala day preparations.

I have made a point of visiting the prison since the general election. I was impressed by the work being done there and by the staff's commitment to the success of the various programmes. Over the years, the prison has clearly established a positive relationship with the local community, benefiting the community as well as substantially assisting the rehabilitation of inmates, which is the primary purpose of an open prison. I do not want anything to happen that might sour that excellent relationship, which is why I wish to address the aftermath of certain recent escape episodes, which have caused some local concern.

Despite the fact that security measures are in place, by definition it is easier for an inmate to abscond from an open prison than from a closed one. The prison authorities take great pains to ensure that category D prisoners chosen for open conditions are those who are likely to benefit from that classification; that they are unlikely to take advantage of open conditions to effect an escape; and that they are not likely to pose a danger to the public should they actually escape.

However, we have to recognise that assessment of the human personality and prediction of human behaviour is an inexact science, and occasionally the assessment of a prisoner's suitability for an open prison will prove incorrect. That does not invalidate the idea behind open prisons or necessarily imply that the SPS has been legally negligent when things go wrong; equally, however, it is not right that the public should suffer when the SPS assessment proves inaccurate, as is inevitable from time to time.

The first incident I wish to highlight took place earlier this year on 16 March, when Joseph McGarry—who was serving a 10-year sentence for various offences, including assault and robbery—absconded from the prison. Around the same time, a motor vehicle belonging to one of my constituents was stolen from Newton Stewart and was subsequently recovered from a location in Glasgow, near to where McGarry had previously resided. Its condition was such that it was a total write-off in insurance terms.

Although McGarry was subsequently charged under road traffic legislation with the offence of allowing himself to be carried in a motor vehicle without having lawful authority—a strange offence—the procurator fiscal decided not to proceed with the charge, and McGarry had two years added to his sentence for the escape attempt.

The amount my constituent received from the insurance company, while no doubt reflecting the car's market value, in no way allowed her to buy a replacement or reflected the value of the car to her. Possession of a motor car in rural Scotland—especially the south-west, which does not enjoy the best public transport services—is a necessity, and my constituent required a car to transport her mother to hospital in Edinburgh for treatment.

My constituent attempted to reclaim her uninsured losses from the SPS, but the service responded that there was no evidence that the escaped prisoner had stolen the car; and, even if there had been such evidence, there was none that the SPS had been negligent. My attempts to achieve some progress did not prove any more successful.

Subsequently, there has been what the intermediate report of the prisons inspectorate described as a
"car theft and hostage taking incident"
at the nearby hamlet of Challoch. On each occasion, a car belonging to one of my constituents has been damaged and written off by insurers. It is clear that Penninghame's relative remoteness results in motor vehicles being a prime target for potential escapees wishing to make good their escape.

After the second incident, my constituents again sought redress from the SPS, in particular compensation for uninsured financial losses, alleging that the SPS was negligent in allowing a prisoner to escape. The SPS responded:
"As in many areas of human endeavour, a judgment has to be made on the evidence available, and from time to time the judgment that an individual can now be trusted to prepare for release in open conditions will not be borne out."
It concluded:
"we consider this was an unfortunate incident which the prison authorities could not reasonably have foreseen and consequently your constituents' claim for compensation is repudiated".

I subsequently wrote to Mr. Frizzell, chief executive of SPS, saying:
"It would appear that the general public has no redress once a faulty classification decision has been made and the prisoner transferred to a low security regime".
Mr. Frizzell replied to the effect that that was not true, and said:
"any person who considers he has a legitimate claim may seek reparation from the Secretary of State—but for this claim to succeed he would first need to show negligence".

Given the cost of a legal case in the civil court and the difficulty of obtaining legal aid in civil cases, the suggestion that my constituents should sue the Secretary of State is a bit of a joke, and it does not appear to my constituents to be an especially inviting or realistic option, despite their confidence in the justice of their case.

Quite apart from the problems of financing legal proceedings, it is likely to be very difficult to prove negligence on the part of the SPS, which makes it almost impossible for those suffering the depredations of escaped prisoners to seek redress with confidence. Given that Penninghame is an open prison, and that prisoners are intended to leave the prison regularly in any event to go to work and other activities, an escape is hardly likely to have resulted from negligence.

The other main area where the prison authorities would be regarded by a layman as potentially at fault is that surely the authorities, almost by definition, have wrongly classified a prisoner as suitable for open conditions if that prisoner subsequently chooses to escape. It is clear that the system has, regrettably, failed in that instance, and that those making the prison classification obviously got it wrong if the prisoner escaped, albeit that is an after-the-fact judgment.

Trying to prove that such a failure constituted legal negligence is a different matter, so my constituents find that it is game, set and match to the SPS. The authorities' position, which allows them to say that prisoners can escape, threaten my constituents, damage property and steal and destroy cars but the injured parties are very unlikely to get any redress unless they can prove negligence, is a non-starter. It is not good enough.

The community of Newton Stewart has been very supportive to Penninghame prison throughout its existence, and I think it behoves the SPS to be supportive to individual members of the community on the rare occasions when things go wrong.

I ask the Minister to consider establishing a mechanism whereby constituents whose specific cases I have mentioned, and members of the wider public with similar cases, could get compensation for losses without the necessity for the SPS to be proved at fault—although, in cases where there really was negligence, the public interest would, I believe, demand that that be identified.

I started by emphasising the good work of the prison at Penninghame and the healthy relationship that it has enjoyed with the local community, to the advantage of both. No one wishes that relationship, built up over many years, to be placed at risk. However, the prisons inspectorate report I mentioned said:
"the incident has generated much adverse media coverage and renewed agitation from a local pressure group … this is now casting a very large and disproportionate shadow over the establishment and its prisoners".
That is no exaggeration. The sheriff at the sheriff court in Stranraer, sentencing the escapee McGarry, said:
"Locals are beginning to question why people like you should be in an open prison in the first place".

I would like the shadow I mentioned to be dispelled. I have had assurances from the governor of Penninghame, and from the Minister by letter, that public safety will be foremost in decisions taken by the SPS in relation to prisoner placement. However, beyond that, given the impossibility of giving absolute guarantees of prison behaviour, the position where innocent people can suffer losses—and cannot obtain recompense—simply because they happen to live close to an open prison threatens to deepen the shadow that the prisons inspectorate mentioned in its report. I hope that the Minister can suggest a way to resolve that dilemma.

My second concern is about the proportions of the various types of prisoner who are resident at Penninghame. As I understand it, until recently the policy of the SPS, although not rigid, was that prisoners who were sentenced to more than eight years were sent to Penninghame, that those who were qualified for open conditions, with sentences of from two to eight years, went to Noranside in Tayside, and that those with less than two years went to Castle Huntly, also in Tayside. That policy is under review, and a decision is expected imminently.

I appreciate that the issues concerning whether prisoners with dissimilar sentences should be mixed in the same establishment are complex, but I suggest that, from the point of view of the local community, it would be much more acceptable if prisoners at Penninghame constituted a cross-section of those in open conditions, not those with largely longer-term sentences. I hope that the Minister will say that the SPS is planning to move in that direction.

1.44 pm

I am very pleased that the hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Morgan) has taken such a constructive tone in relation to the contribution that Penninghame prison makes to the local community. He has also been very robust in the defence of his constituents over recent circumstances.

I want to respond in equally constructive terms in relation to the points that have been raised. The hon. Gentleman spoke with passion and insisted that the matter be taken seriously. His correspondence with the chief executive of the Scottish Prison Service and myself shows the same qualities.

I understand the anxiety, distress and anger that the hon. Gentleman's constituents must feel in the light of this year's events. One need only pause for a moment to put oneself in their place. It was in acknowledgment of the concerns expressed by the local community that the Scottish Prison Service imposed a moratorium on the transfer to Penninghame of prisoners with any history of violence.

Not unnaturally, last March's incident attracted significant media interest. Against that background, considerable support was expressed by local people for the work done by Penninghame prisoners in the community. The hon. Gentleman alluded to that.

I know that prison managers are keen to build on that support and to develop the good links that exist. As part of that process, I shall now ask the Scottish Prison Service to examine again the allocation criteria for Penninghame, to ensure that those prisoners who go there are those—and only those—who can use the opportunities that it affords constructively. I hope that that addresses part of the concern that the hon. Gentleman expressed. The SPS attaches a high priority to good relations and co-operation with the local community. It is important that decisions taken about the allocation of prisoners do not put that in jeopardy.

I emphasise that people living in the constituency must have confidence in the prison; that is vital. As has been said, historically the establishment has maintained a good relationship with the local community, and I give the hon. Gentleman my assurance that we do not want to do anything in future that jeopardises that concern. I would not wish to lose sight of the important role that open prisons play in aiding the successful integration of prisoners into society at the end of their sentence.

The Scottish Prison Service makes strenuous efforts to ensure that no prisoner who is thought to be a danger to the public goes to Penninghame. Prisoners are transferred only when they have been allocated security category D, defined as
"a prisoner who is considered not to be a danger to the public and who can be given the opportunity to serve his sentence in open conditions".
Before transfer to Penninghame, assessments are made of the risk to the general public if the prisoner were to abscond and the likelihood of his absconding.

Allocation of security category D to indeterminate sentence prisoners requires the Secretary of State's approval. Very careful consideration is given to each application for transfer and the following factors, among others, are taken into account. We must consider response and conduct since imprisonment, and willingness to address offending behaviour. We must consider preparation for release. We must anticipate the likely response of victims or the general public. We must assess the stability of the social and domestic relationships. Finally, the person must be drug-free. That process is given a great deal of attention, to try to avoid any of the difficulties and problems that the hon. Gentleman outlined today.

The hon. Gentleman has suggested that it may have been a mistake to assign category D to the prisoner who absconded on 24 March. He has suggested that subsequent events proved that that was a misjudgment. However, he will accept, I am sure, that a judgment can be made only on the evidence available at the time. Category D is awarded after a rigorous assessment procedure, which tests the prisoner on escorted leaves as well as in conditions of greater freedom within the prison.

Occasionally, no matter how good that process, a prisoner will go on to abuse the trust placed in him. That is not a fact about prisoners' behaviour specifically; it is a fact of human nature. Sometimes people let one down. In the more philosophical part of his speech, the hon. Gentleman confirmed that.

The prisoner in question had created no trouble for anyone in the five years preceding the incidents of 24 March. The staff who had been responsible for his management while he was in Edinburgh prison, and who had observed his behaviour closely throughout that period, advocated his reclassification. His cause was championed by the independent Scottish prisons complaints commissioner, who thought that he was not being reclassified quickly enough.

There was no logic to the events of 24 March; they rapidly escalated out of control. It was if the prisoner had embarked on a roller-coaster ride that he could not get off. Such events are very unusual. In its 43-year history, Penninghame has had only one incident of this seriousness. Of course, that is no consolation to those who were affected that day. I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman's desire to help them—any Minister who is a constituency Member of Parliament would want to do so. I share that desire, because it is clear that a wrong was committed.

I fully understand the concerns of the hon. Gentleman and his constituents. As he knows, a full investigation was carried out after the incident. The prisoner involved has yet to come to trial. I cannot say whether the trial will shed any light on the incident. However, on the strength of the hon. Gentleman's concerns, I shall ask the chief executive of the Scottish Prison Service, after the trial, to look further into all the issues raised this afternoon.

We never live in a perfect society, but I should like to think that the confidence and trust of the constituents in the prison can always be reinforced by the common sense exercised on both sides of the House. I think that the hon. Gentleman has made an excellent, concise presentation of the concerns that exist. It is important for Ministers to listen and do as much as they can to ensure the continuation of that confidence and trust. I hope that the assurance that I have given will satisfy the hon. Gentleman.

It being before Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Sitting suspended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 10 (Wednesday sittings), till half-past Two o 'clock.