This article appears as part of the Unspun: Scottish Politics newsletter.

Why is anyone surprised that the SNP government has been forced to open prison gates?

Jails are dangerously overcrowded. Early release for hundreds of prisoners is now the government’s only answer, as my colleague Andrew Learmonth reported exclusively in The Herald this week.

It should never have come to this. Police officers, social workers, psychologists – experts of every stripe – have warned for years that Scotland’s prison system is broken. The government didn’t listen.

Ministers should have done everything possible to cut offending before it even happens. Prison doesn’t stop crime. It’s the last resort when all other attempts have failed.

If we spent a little on tackling the causes of crime, we’d save the huge amounts it costs to lock someone up and fix the damage of their offending.

We know child poverty can be a first step towards prison. Clearly, not every child born poor offends. Many have happy, successful lives. But poverty increases risk.

Poverty feeds into addiction, care, homelessness, and early death. I recently spoke to Fraser McKinlay, who heads The Promise Scotland, the organisation tasked to oversee the care system shake-up.

He was a leading Audit Scotland official, monitoring national finances. McKinlay believes we’re spending money all wrong. “Stop spending money on crisis intervention,” he says. An example of “smart spending” would see funds focused at the point where a child’s life might set them on the path to care and prison. That means shifting money towards early years support for families.

Read more:

Neil Mackay talks to Fraser McKinlay about fixing the care system

Scotland’s acclaimed Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) is a perfect case study for this approach. The VRU treated crime as a public health problem. Result? Offending dropped.

Former VRU director Niven Rennie, once one of Scotland’s leading police officers, told me of “the stupidity of the cost of prison, compared to the cost of providing services to prevent crime”. In other words, help people who risk going to prison by improving their lives. The result will be less crime and fewer prisoners.

“We need a prevention strategy that starts pre-birth… Unless you do that no police strategy is worth a bean because all you’re doing is reacting, not preventing.

“All public service agencies should be involved. We need to recognise the links between addiction, violence, poor health, and poor education outcomes.” Over 50% of the prison population “were in care”.

Rennie added: “Most of us would put our hand in our pocket to stop a baby going into care, but somewhere between birth and 16, we’re prepared to put the same person in prison. There’s something very wrong there. We need a fundamental rethink.

“Most violence in Scotland happens in the poorest postcodes. Very often someone is victim one week and perpetrator the next… Violence is often a reaction to childhood trauma – they lash out. That’s where support should be targeted.”

Political “short-termism” is the stumbling block. Politicians want to show they’re tough on crime so they’ll win elections and not face attack by the tabloids. Budgets therefore don’t target social spending at the poorest. “The whole system is wrong and needs rethought,” Rennie says. 

The Herald:
A courageous politician would take money from the prisons budget – which clearly isn’t been spent well – and invest in long-term support for children in poverty, thereby cutting crime.

“If we invested more in dealing with social problems, crime would fall and society would be a better place,” Rennie told me. “So, we need more support for families struggling, but what do we do? We withdraw support, cut back on public services. We’ve made them rely on foodbanks.”

Mary Glasgow, who runs Children 1st – previously known as the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, recently told me that poverty is killing the very notion of childhood. 

One of Glasgow’s staff was on the verge of tears recently as he described a mother “surviving on toast” so her children could eat. “There are children having childhoods that are absolutely heartbreaking,” she says.

Read more:

Neil Mackay talks to Mary Glasgow about the horror of child poverty

Can government not see the risks such experiences pose to children?

Just last week, Scotland’s most high-profile child psychologist Dr Suzanne Zeedyk told me politicians are “overseeing cruelty and neglect to children”.

She’s an expert in Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) – issues like physical, emotional or sexual abuse; neglect; parental mental illness; domestic violence; parents in prison; and addiction in the home.

These experiences can set a path towards an adulthood of drink, drugs, bad relationships, ill-health, crime, prison, and early death. Two-thirds of Scottish children suffer at least one ACE by age eight. One-in-ten experience three or more. Zeedyk’s philosophy is simple: if we fail children, we store up hell for society.

Public money, she says, is being “wasted” in picking up the pieces when damaged children reach adulthood. Instead, we should invest wisely in making life better for children – a policy which would lead in the long-term to less pressure on the NHS, police, social work and prisons. There’s nothing cost-effective about how we treat modern childhood, Zeedyk believes.

Everyone who understands the prison system knew it was failing. Instead of listening, the SNP government went its own way. Now prisons are broken.

Read Neil Mackay every Friday in the Unspun newsletter.

There’s echoes of the housing crisis. The SNP was warned repeatedly that its policies were breaking Scotland’s housing system. It took until this week for the government to finally admit its failings and declare an emergency.

It’s time ministers also admit they’ve wrecked prisons. Declare an emergency, and this time listen to people like Rennie, McKinlay, Glasgow and Zeedyk. They want to help, and unlike the government, they have the answers.