I WENT to prison this week. Well, to clarify, I visited HMP Inverness to talk to prisoners about democracy, politics and Scotland. It’s the first time I’ve been in since 2018, when I visited the prison on two occasions at the invitation of the governor. It was an experience that has long stayed with me.

When I last visited, I spoke to prisoners and staff about the facilities and their experiences inside and outside the prison. The conversations were powerful – and indeed some prisoners wrote regularly to me as a local MSP detailing their conditions.

When I returned this week, it was to speak about my work as MSP and democracy in Scotland. It followed on from a course that had been offered, as part of a SQA qualification on modern studies.

One of the first questions related to prisoner voting rights, and whether prisoners should be able to vote. Since April 2, 2020, prisoners serving sentences of 12 months or less can vote in Scottish Parliament and local government elections. That means only certain prisoners can vote.

I’ve long been of the view that a broader franchise is only good for our democracy as it limits politicians’ powers and commits them to care about the views of the otherwise voiceless. Prisoners are clearly in that category.

And politicians should care about the rights, responsibilities and experiences of all citizens – including inmates. The Human Rights Act is quite clear that everybody has certain rights – including freedom from torture and inhuman and degrading treatment. That is rightly extended to prisoners.

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Politicians should be held accountable for how the state treats prisoners, and extending the franchise to them ensures a level of accountability that otherwise wouldn’t exist.

I asked the assembled group of prisoners what they thought about prisoners voting rights. Interestingly, many suggested that they only became interested in voting when the privilege was removed. That is common to most human experiences.

My small survey sample is endorsed by a wider survey conducted by the Scottish Government in May 2022, after the local government elections. These were the first elections in which some prisoners could vote. Of the respondents, more than half said that they had never voted in a local government election before.

The current prison in which I met with the prisoners opened about 120 years ago, and you can tell. That’s despite the best efforts of the staff who do an exceptional job keeping prisoners and their colleagues safe. There are dedicated teaching staff who arrange courses and qualifications, in collaboration with Fife College.

Contrary to popular rhetoric, there is nothing comfortable about HMP Inverness. In fact, there is a reason why successive Scottish governments have promised to build a new prison in the city.

Apparently when it first opened it had a capacity of less than 40. The capacity is now about 100, but it won’t surprise you to hear that most reports – anecdotal and formal – suggest that it is overcapacity.

In fact, prison capacity and the high number of prisoners was one of several questions that were posed to me multiple times over the various sessions by several prisoners.

Fascinatingly, one prisoner asked me, when the Parliament was going to deal with the numbers. I said that one of the problems is that prisoner numbers are one of many issues that had become subject to the usual uninformed political debates in Parliament.

Recently published figures confirm that the prison population in Scotland has risen again – by 9% in 2023. The rate of increase has apparently slowed but the prison population is too high.

Compared with European figures, the capacity of the prison estate and the best analysis on rehabilitation and re-offending – there are too many prisoners. What’s worse is that projections of the prison population, published on February 13, suggest an urgent need to do something.

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Doing nothing isn’t an option. A few weeks ago, the Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Angela Constance, explained that the problem isn’t just about the number of prisoners, it is also about the impact on prison officers’ time and effort to focus on prisoner progression and rehabilitation.

And it raises fundamental questions about whether some prisoners should really be in prison. Scotland has one of the highest prison populations in western Europe – like England and Wales.

In 2023, 132 people per 100,000 people were imprisoned in Scotland. That compares with 137 people in England and Wales, 106 people in France, 98 people in Spain and 51 people in the Netherlands.

That is quite stark.

Are we more criminally inclined than these other countries? I haven’t seen anything that suggests we are.

So, do we default to custody on a more frequent basis than these other countries?

Those figures certainly suggest we do.

A lot has changed in the last 15 years since Henry McLeish chaired the Scottish Prisons Commission. That examined the approach to custody and imprisonment in Scotland.

In that time, reporting of sexual offences has increased, prisoners are on average serving longer sentences, the prison population is ageing with more complex needs and our prisons are not designed to deal with the evolving needs of the prison population.

However one question has remained the same: are we using imprisonment in the best possible way to reduce re-offending, rehabilitate offenders and keep our communities safe?

It’s not just about reducing the prison population – which is self-evidently too high – but it is also about ensuring custody is the right approach for the right people at the right time, for the sake of victims.

Some people in Scotland serve a life sentence, three months at a time, because of the revolving door of re-offending. And people who end up in prison to serve short sentences are reconvicted nearly twice as often as those who serve a community payback order instead.

I asked somebody in prison yesterday what they would recommend as the best policies to reduce re-offending. They emphasised the support provided after release – social care, housing and employment. I heard the same from prison officers.

That’s why it is absolutely right that the majority of the £14 million increase included in the Scottish Government budget will be spent on justice social work.

How we, the state, treat prisoners does have an impact on future behaviour. It doesn’t excuse it, of course. But the evidence suggests it has an impact.

Prisons will always exist – quite obviously it is vital to protect victims and the public. We need establishments and institutions for those who will cause grave harm and commit heinous crimes.

In recent months we have seen horrendous cases of injustice, criminality and abuse.

Convictions have led to life sentencing, and understandably so. That is not in dispute. We need to see higher levels of convictions in sexual offence cases, which will inevitably lead to more prisoners. That isn’t in dispute either.

I’m not sure how many readers will have been in prison – as a visitor or an inmate. As multiple doors clanged shut behind me I could think of multiple reasons why I’d never want to be a resident. But I was also moved by the engagement of the prisoners I met – their inquiring minds, intelligent questions, and the loss of potentially positive contribution to society.

Most of our political debates don’t even begin to scratch the surface of the complexities of the justice system – but if we care about reducing the number of future victims, we need to ask the difficult questions and pursue awkward answers.