BARLINNIE’S nicknames are as exotic as those belonging to its most notorious clientele. It’s most commonly known as the Bar-L, but will also answer to The Big Hoose and The Bar. If you were to make reference to The Wendy House, Barlinnie’s fabled old segregation unit, it might indicate a more intimate connection to Scotland’s largest jail. Only prison officers; their locked-up charges and DI Taggart are really entitled to mention the Wendy House in everyday speech.

If Glasgow’s criminal fraternity had a Mecca, it would be Barlinnie. It’s where underworld reputations are made or broken. It’s only those who have never spent time there who tend to romanticise it, throwing its name into pub conversations as a way of conveying your street smarts.

A childhood friend of mine who did time there on several occasions before regaining a foothold on his life recalls this period with a chill.

“There’s nothing romantic or desirable about it,” he said. He’ll always be grateful for the advice of one Barlinnie officer. “Listen, son,” he’d said. “Do you really want to be wasting your life jouking in and out of this place? At least I get paid to come here.”

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It’s a tale which belies Barlinnie’s fearsome reputation, carefully cultivated in dozens of ex-cons’ memoirs and television dramas. Michael Stoney has been governor of Barlinnie for six years, and is realistic about the prison’s historic reputation.

“Barlinnie is an iconic institution in the history and culture of Glasgow,” he says. “But in our sector it’s always been seen as a can-do prison.

“The vast majority of our staff will tell you that it’s a pretty relaxed and friendly working environment here. They also have a fierce pride and commitment to Barlinnie and to the welfare of the inmates.”

We meet in his modest office, situated above the prison’s main entrance. A large artwork greets visitors waiting outside for their appointments. It features a compendium of energetic words conveying brisk optimism. It could be a resource hub for executive leadership modules.

The governor speaks with authority, laced with compassion, about the work being done here. “We’re dealing with many more diverse types of prisoners than in previous generations. To be good prison officers here we’ve had to move from a position of discipline and control to one underpinned by empathy, listening and trying to find solutions.

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“However, a lot of prisoners simply don’t have the tools to deal with life outside, never mind in here. This means we are faced with men who can be violent and aggressive due to having suffered acute trauma, arising from physical and sexual abuse. They’ve been living in crisis situations for almost the entirety of their lives.

“The majority in here are mapped to the areas of highest multiple deprivation in Glasgow. They use drugs to ease their pain, anxiety, depression and isolation.”

A 2017 report published by the Scottish Prisons Service found that more than a half of prisoners in Scotland’s jails had been in care at the age of 16. These numbers are greater in Barlinnie. The challenges they present though, are intensified by a relatively recent phenomenon: the surfeit of psycho-active street drugs which makes their behaviour more erratic and unpredictable: street drugs of varying strength and quality; sedatives such as benzodiazepines and, says Mr Stoney, “all the pams.”

The means of smuggling them in and out of jail have become more sophisticated with each advancement in new technology. These will always include attempts to bribe prison officers. “We’re constantly updating our detection methods, but it’s a constant battle. Good recruitment processes are vital as it’s hard to be a really good officer,” he says.

One recent visitor had attempted to smuggle drugs in a Kinder egg shoved up his fundament. The purchase last year of a new full body scanner will help. We discuss the traditional portrayal of prison life in film and television: grim, formless, metal gulags monitored by uniformed sociopaths who view the inmates as scum.

He mentions two prison dramas which accurately portrayed life inside. One of them is Time, featuring a performance by Stephen Graham which he says was “absolutely spot-on”. The other is Porridge, the 1970s sitcom, starring the legendary Ronnie Barker.

This pleases me more than I can say. We meet in the slipstream of reports that Barlinnie’s proposed new replacement, HMP Glasgow, is facing delays and price increases. It was slated for a 2026 opening at a cost of around £400m, but these details have quietly disappeared from the Scottish Government’s projected infrastructure cost estimates.

The Herald: BarlinnieBarlinnie (Image: FREE)

This had led to an outbreak of the usual verbal incontinence when opposition parties have no clue what they’re talking about. The plans were “a farce” and in “disarray”. The Barlinnie Governor though, is relaxed. “If there is a delay it will be about a year,” he said. “Initial cost projections were based on a prison population of 700, but this has since been revised up significantly. You’ve also got to factor in much higher interest rates and supply chain issues arising from Brexit. But the world can change again in our favour.

“If we get the budget, we’re confident we can deliver the new prison on a two-and-a-half-year build plan.”

He’s been given a hugely influential role in designing the prison he wants. It’s believed to be the first time that a prison governor has had such a level of input into design and construction. It will have 60 units of 22 people, providing staff with much more time and ease of access to the prisoners. This will foster better relationships. The right-wing press in their endless quest for hard labour and thin gruel in our prisons will see this as soft-touch justice.

Mr Stoney points out though, that better awareness of prisoners’ complex challenges combined with a desire to break cycles of re-offending has huge benefits to wider society. “On a simple cost basis, the benefits of cutting rates of re-offending are considerable. We need to be ambitious about this and target as much as a 20% reduction.

“The provision of a better physical environment for our staff to work closely with prisoners improves their mental health and that of their families, who are also suffering. This also has the potential to improve health outcomes in the Greater Glasgow area as a whole.

“The new prison should be seen as a community asset which will provide spaces and facilities for community groups. There are multiple values for wider society in the new prison we’re building.”

Earlier this year, Barlinnie featured in the eye of the storm around Isla Bryson, the transgender double rapist who had been placed in the women’s prison estate on remand while awaiting sentencing.

The original warrant issued by the courts had called for her to be placed in Barlinnie.

Following a public outcry, Bryson is now serving her sentence at HMP Edinburgh. Mr Stoney is relaxed about this issue too. “We’ve been dealing with transgender prisoners for a while now and without any fuss or bother. I don’t foresee any real problems following this case either.”

Barlinnie is 140 years old and Scotland’s attitude to treatment of prisoners seems rooted in the same era. Winston Churchill, an ardent advocate for penal reform, told parliament: “The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country.” A century or so later, progressive and enlightened Scotland is still failing it.

Barlinnie is home to around one fifth of Scotland’s entire prison population of 7700 and is typically running at about 50% over capacity. Barlinnie’s five accommodation blocks have changed little since Victorian times, leading HM Inspectorate of Prisons to describe them as “not fit for purpose”.

Yet Scotland’s political elites, despite their liberal consensus, seem to still view prisoners’ rights and sentencing policy through the rheumy eyes of a Daily Mail leader writer.

Michael Stoney is unequivocal in his analysis of this. “There’s a reason why Scotland has the highest prison population in Europe with its concomitant cost to the public. We’re still jailing people for relatively minor offences or holding them on remand, yet expressing dismay at the consequences of prison institutionalisation.

“Scotland lags far behind other European countries who have transitioned to more enlightened penal systems. But then, I wonder if the public mood is ready to embrace this. Of course we must be sensitive to the feelings and experiences of the victims of crime, but if we’re serious about breaking generational cycles of criminality we need to be more radical.”

He tells me about the recent death of an elderly prisoner much of whose adult life had been lived inside these walls. “Our officers were very fond of him and there was genuine sadness at his death. To us, he was a human being first and a prisoner second.

“It’s been said before, but it’s worth repeating. We should be locking up the ones we’re scared of; not the ones who annoy us.”