Why are prison officers staying in post in Scotland as they flee the tide of violence and self-harm in England and Wales?

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(c) Scottish Prison Service

I can’t answer that question directly because I can’t find any evidence of the rate of departures in Scotland and, as we all know, the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence….or is it? In the specific context of Scottish media coverage, if something is potentially bad news for the SNP or for the Scottish Government, then we can be sure it would be covered obsessively. You only have to look at the recent coverage of SNP politicians sending ill-judged texts, having shady business connections or of their voting behaviour in London, and contrast that with the same media’s neglect of Tory child rapists, of sectarian tweets and of dark money, to see the sharp contrast.

The Flood in England and Wales:

Now, there is currently a flood of prison officers leaving the service in England and Wales. See:

Number of UK prison officers resigning soars amid increasing levels of violence and self-harm


I can find no sign of any comparable flood or even a wee trickle in Scotland. Given the nature of our media, I feel sure that this is sure evidence of absence. If there was such a thing, they’d be all over it, but they aren’t, so it isn’t.

The scale of the problem in England & Wales is staggering. See this from the Independent yesterday:

‘One in 16 officers resigned last year, compared with one in 33 officers two years before and just one in 100 in 2009/10 ( PA ) The number of prison officers resigning from their jobs has more than doubled in the last two years amid soaring levels of violence and self-harm in UK jails, the Independent can reveal.’


Why no flood in Scotland?

The next question is why is there no comparative flood in Scotland? Less than year ago, Holyrood statistics offered a plausible reason:

‘Scottish prisons are significantly less violent than jails in England and Wales, with lower rates of inmate aggression, according to statistics released by the Scottish parliament. Figures compiled by the Scottish Parliament Information Centre revealed that last year there were 73% fewer outbreaks of violence in Scottish jails than in prisons in England and Wales. For every 1,000 inmates in England and Wales, there were 32 recorded prisoner-on-prisoner attacks and nine directed against prison staff.  Over the same period in Scotland, for every 1,000 inmates there were just 10 recorded instances of prisoners attacking each other and one incident of a violent assault on wardens. In total, there were 79 serious assaults in Scottish prisons last year, while in England and Wales, prison chiefs logged 3,553.’


While attacks on guards will be a major factor, self-harm by prisoners will surely add to the stress felt by staff and the evidence here is shockingly different. First, see this for England & Wales:

‘Self-harm and violent attacks have hit record levels in prisons across England and Wales as campaigners warn of a “system in crisis”. More than 11,600 prisoners harmed themselves in 2017 – a record high – and the number of separate incidents rose by 11 per cent to 44,600. Self-harm is now being recorded every 12 minutes on average and violent assault at 18-minute intervals, with 23 attacks on staff every day.’


A study by the Ferret with the intention of drawing attention to the situation in Scotland found, however, markedly lower levels than the above:

Figures for recorded incidents of self-harm at 15 prisons across the country have been released to The Ferret by SPS under freedom of information law. The figures include threats to self-harm and suicide attempts, as well as cases in which harm occurred. In all 15 prisons the total number of self-harm incidents rose from 305 in 2013-14 and 315 in 2014-15, to 429 in 2015-16 and 428 in 2016-17.’


So, there were 44 600 incidents of self-harm in England & Wales but only 428  in Scotland. You can probably see where this is going.

First, the prison population in Scotland is 7 700 and 428 is 5.5% of that. The prison population in England and Wales is 85 500 and 44 600 is 52% of that. So self-harm may be more than ten times as common in English and Welsh prisons.


Why less violence in Scottish Prisons?

Here’s what Colin McConnell, chief executive of the Scottish Prison Service said in October 2017:

‘So, what is Scotland doing right that England is getting wrong? McConnell says he is asked that question regularly, both in Scotland, but also by justice sector colleagues in England. With a degree of caution, given that commenting on England’s prison service might come across as “hubristic”, McConnell says his impression, based on reports from prison bodies south of the border, is of “excessive budget pressures”, inconsistent policy and a lack of a sense of direction. In contrast, he is full of praise for the Scottish Government’s handling of prisons. “Compare that fairly, and I think evidentially, with what’s happening in Scotland, and I think what we’ve benefited from here…has been a consistent form of government. Some may disagree with that view, but I’ve been running the SPS for approaching six years now and no doubt, I have benefited from a consistent requirement presentation from the Scottish Government in terms of what prisons should be doing, and that relationship, therefore, builds up over time.I think we’ve had consistency and clarity of expectation. I think related to that has been, therefore, a consistent approach to the funding. For the service, yes, of course, we’ve had to make cost reductions, just like every other public sector organisation has had to do, but I think the Scottish Government, and again, this is evidenced based, has done what it can to make sure that only the savings that are absolutely required have to be made and those savings [are] moderated by the need to be consistent in the journey that we’re going.” McConnell says there is a view in Scotland that the prison experience has to be as positive as possible – within reason – so that the prison experience can help people to re-orientate themselves and not just simply fall back to the ways that got them into prison in the first place. That takes “political guts” and determination as well as operational skill to make that happen, he says.’


This is such a positive picture of good governance by the SNP administration that all Ruth Davidson can do is find one example of prisoner supervision gone wrong, ignore the bigger picture and try to build a whole critique on it.



4 thoughts on “Why are prison officers staying in post in Scotland as they flee the tide of violence and self-harm in England and Wales?

  1. Contrary July 3, 2018 / 9:37 pm

    Those figures for England and Wales are horrific! Bedlam indeed. How long before they start going the American route and use prisoners to act as slave labour? How long before they replace the European labour on farms and seasonal jobs with prisoners? How long before a privatised prison service is profiting nicely? And how long before the entire justice system become totally corrupt so it can share in this profit?

    Wrongful imprisonment is rife in America.

    I have still to try and find figures on wrongful imprisonment in Scotland – i believe it to be very low, but have no evidence or statistics on that (due to the need for corroboration, for example, you can’t just confess to a crime and get banged up, unlike in many other countries – and you’d be astounded at how easily people confess to things they haven’t done, for a whole variety of reasons). Have there ever been any big scandals for wrongful imprisonment in Scotland? I can’t think of any off the top of my head, but there have been a few in England.


  2. John September 16, 2018 / 8:43 am

    I wish these experts WOULD use some hubris when talking about the good things they and the Scottish Government are doing , they get enough of strident condemnation when they are perceived NOT to be doing so !


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