THE Scottish Prison Service chief executive Colin McConnell has helpfully opened up the debate around prisons and their effectiveness in stopping offending behaviour, but the response from some quarters is less helpful, although wholly predictable ("Call for inmates to have phones in cells", The Herald, January 30).

It is a debate that is urgent but it needs to be responsible and enlightened, so let us get past the idea of phones and televisions. If the purpose of prison is to punish and to serve as a deterrent then it is a very wasteful way of using public funds; if that model worked the United States would be the safest place in the world.

Our re-offending rates are far too high and we could do a lot more to rehabilitate offenders, stop the revolving door of re-offending, save a few pounds of taxpayers' money and have fewer crimes and fewer victims. Whether we like it or not, offenders and their families are members of our communities. It is my experience that the overwhelming majority of repeat offenders are not master criminals running vast organisations from their prison cell; they are mostly feckless and stupid, so let's lock up those individuals who scare us, not those who annoy us.

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They will also be fathers and mothers, so even if we do need to punish adults, and some do need to be jailed, must we at the same time punish their families, particularly their children? We all conform to expectations and what we experience as normal; if a child believes what is expected of them is to end up like their mum or dad, if we demonstrate to them that there is no rehabilitation, no redemption, no hope, just punishment, then it is likely they will respond accordingly, like an epidemic being transmitted from one generation to the next.

We need to think about this. We need to apply the science of what we know works in a way that is effective and we should do this with compassion. We know that employment helps, we know good relationships help, we know hope helps. So at a time when visions of Scotland's future occupy us all, let us think about how we should deal with those of our fellow Scots who live in our communities and offend. What we are doing now is not really working, so let us have a serious discussion, if not for today's offenders then for their children – or do they not deserve our compassion because their dad or mum is in prison?

Detective Chief Superintendent John Carnochan,

Co-director, Violence Reduction Unit,

Pegasus House,

375 West George Street, Glasgow.

COLIN McConnell's ideas regarding prisoners' access to phones and TVs in their cells appear to have generated a lot of heat but not much light. However, both his comments and the adverse reaction to them perhaps need to be analysed in the context of evidence about the experience of imprisonment and about the process of desistance from crime.

There are many research studies that suggest that maintaining positive family ties is often crucial in supporting people to stop offending. It is obvious why that is the case. For most of us, the wellbeing of those that we love is a primary motivation to lead a decent life. However, one of the many paradoxical and counterproductive effects of imprisonment is that, in order to survive it, many prisoners (especially those serving longer sentences) actively distance themselves from their families so as to make the pains of imprisonment less intense. Rather than, as we sometimes imagine, compelling people to confront their crimes, imprisonment tends to force them to adapt and survive. Recent research – for example, by Marguerite Schinkel at the University of Edinburgh – suggests that while distancing themselves from the outside world may help people cope with life inside prison, it makes reintegration after imprisonment even more difficult.

Some might wonder why they should care about this. Leaving aside basic humanitarian principles, we ought to care because failures to rehabilitate and reintegrate affect the whole of society, not least by driving up re-offending rates. But if that isn't a good enough reason for the more punitive amongst us, consider this: having phones in cells might make imprisonment more painful, by reminding prisoners of what they have lost.

So before bemoaning Mr McConnell's comments as further evidence of a "soft-touch Scotland", we might want to resist our baser impulses, stop and think and try to develop a more mature reaction (much as we hope that prisoners will learn to do). In the penal system, as in the economy, there is scant evidence that austerity works; if we want to see positive growth and development, we need to invest in it.

Fergus McNeill,

Professor of Criminology & Social Work,

Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research, University of Glasgow.