When might Kenny MacAskill admit that he was wrong to try to do away with Scotland's prison visiting committees?
In December the Justice Secretary told members of the 16 committees that their services would no longer be required, despite two reviews that both produced strong support for their retention.
Mr MacAskill claimed the latest consultation failed to produce "decisive evidence" in favour of keeping them. Comments from Brigadier Hugh Monro, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons for Scotland (HMCIPS), were construed by the Scottish Government to imply his support for disbanding them. This seems typical of the way the Government has tried to skew the evidence on this issue.
As Brig Monro makes clear in The Herald today, his remarks were taken out of context. It is true that he supports the Government's idea of creating a prisoner advocacy service. But the desirability of such a service and the need for independent monitoring are not mutually exclusive. Advocacy and monitoring are both desirable features in a humane, modern penal system that upholds human rights and decent treatment for everyone, regardless of what they have done.
Ever since 1871, visiting committees have been spotting the gaps between prison policy and prison practice. Of course the Scottish Prison Service wants rid of them. They are a thorn in the side. Certainly, their role overlaps with that of HMCIPS but the two should be symbiotic. The visitors – volunteers who can make unannounced visits and win the trust and confidence of inmates – can be the chief inspector's eyes and ears. They form an important link between penal institutions and their local communities because most are appointed by local authorities.
Both Brig Monro and the National Preventative Mechanism – the body that monitors the UK's compliance with international human rights law – fear a watering down in the protection afforded to prisoners under the Government's proposals. Instead, they argue, it should be strengthening independent monitoring. A paid advocacy service is no substitute.
Also, the Justice Secretary has been extremely selective in his use of statistics, relying on the comparative inactivity of the Barlinnie visiting committee, rather than the energetic and effective committee at Cornton Vale, which was recently praised by a delegation from Russia.
As The Herald argued in February, instead of doing away with visiting committees, Mr MacAskill should be using best practice to improve the general standard. They remain as relevant today as 140 years ago. At £75,000 a year, they also offer remarkable value for money.
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