Interviews with a Prison Governor, an Ex-offender, a High Court Judge,
a Prison Warden and a Scottish Prison Service Official
All interviews by Eva Merz, except last interview The Artist, by Jenny Brownrigg
Ian Gunn, Governor of Cornton Vale, 2006-2009
He is a very tall man with an aura of authority, which one would expect in a prison governor of course; but he is also gently spoken, very friendly and forthcoming. We sit in Mr Gunn’s office with cups of tea and cookies. He tells me that he was a bank manager for many years before he joined the prison service, and says both jobs are about providing good customer service. He discusses the ways in which Scottish prisons have become better with the implementation of the Human Rights Act [HRA, (1998), came into force in the UK in 2000, and Prisoners’ Complaints procedures [Scottish Prison Complaints Commission, (1994)]. Prior to that British prisons had an image of being very violent and scary places, and not somewhere he would have liked to work. As he says: “Prisons can only run when there is good will between staff and prisoners.” Previously he worked in Edinburgh Prison and Pentland Hall (which is no longer there), and he was the governor of HM Prison Aberdeen (formerly Craiginches) and Peterhead Prison. Cornton Vale is different. When Mr Gunn gave me a tour of the prison estate, he pointed at the fairly fragile fence system and said: “Look, we don’t need thick walls around the prison here because women just don’t escape.”
Cornton Vale, January 14 2009
Eva Merz: Besides being a female only facility, how does Cornton Vale differ from the other prisons you have worked in?
Ian Gunn: Cornton Vale was built in 1975 as a borstal in other words, a cross between a secure unit and a young offenders institution. It was designed specifically to contain small units which would house no more than twenty or fifteen girls. There were about 110 girls here to begin with. As you have seen, there are many long, narrow, claustrophobic corridors designed in L shapes. This is not good in a prison because you want lots of open space so that staff can see what’s going on. A lot of the rooms here have hot and cold water and electricity but no toilets. Some of the girls have keys to their rooms and can therefore use the toilet when they wish, and some of the newer rooms have showers and toilets inside. It is certainly more modern than Craiginches in Aberdeen [opened in 1890], which is still the original prison.
In your opinion, what are the main differences between male and female offenders?
Male and female prisoners may have committed the same offences, but they may have arrived at that point by a different route. We have a significant number of women who are addicted to drugs and/or alcohol. Probably 80 percent of the women here have some sort of mental illness. Most cases may be minor they may be personality disorders but they will certainly have issues. Many will be physically unwell because of their addictions, and probably 70 percent will have been victims of physical or sexual abuse. Half will self-harm on a regular basis, and two thirds will be mothers. Those that still have their children will often be the direct carers.
When a man goes to prison there tends to be a significant other out there who is dealing with child and housing issues, but when a woman goes to prison there’s generally nobody out there to help. Because of this, women tend to arrive in prison more damaged and with many more problems than men. Given their chaotic lifestyles, given they may have been subjected to abuse, Cornton Vale is often seen as a sort of haven, a place of safety, which is a double-edged sword. I like that my prison has a reputation for being safe, but when women tell you they prefer being in prison to being in the community, when their lawyers tell the courts these women are probably safer in prison, it’s no surprise we sometimes ask ourselves: “Why have we received this person? This person is physically or mentally ill; she has a huge addiction problem; she is going to cause lots of problems in the prison. Surely there must be somewhere else for her to go.” But in a lot of cases there isn’t. You see men going into prisons with alcohol and drug problems, with mental health issues and abuse problems, but nowhere near the scale of what we have here.
From listening to the girls and reading some of their files, there’s usually a significant male in their world, some powerful man who’s caused them to take this route. A significant event can shift a person’s thinking and the way in which they behave: if they were told when they were very young that they have no worth, if they were abused or formed an inappropriate bond with an adult… Often they are abused and really scared of what has happened to them. They try to bury it but with certain triggers this fear comes out in violence and bizarre behaviour. Often drugs are taken so they can blot out things that have happened and, before you know it, they have an addiction to feed, which maybe leads them into prostitution as well. I don’t want to imply that, because women are drug addicts or have been abused, they shouldn’t go to prison. If they have committed crimes that deserve custodial sentences, I can’t argue that decision. However, looking at how people get to the point of committing crime, it’s probably not a surprise things end this way. We have to intervene earlier.
When you gave me a tour of the prison you let me look into a cell where a girl was lying on a mattress on the floor, and being watched 24-hours a day because she was suicidal. It broke my heart to see that girl. What can you tell me about her?
I don’t have all the details but it’s well known she was abused as a child and tries to blot out those memories with alcohol, which in turn makes her aggressive and more likely to behave badly to the point of assaulting people. The last time she was released she was out of custody for about ten weeks which, for her, was pretty good. Now she’s back in, doing a three week remand. At the moment, she has cuts on her arms not for the first time and is clearly self-harming, but that’s not necessarily a sign that she’s going to try killing herself. She seems in good spirits and hopefully won’t get a custodial sentence. There are lots of girls like her who, in a way, have been criminalised by not having sufficient support on the outside. There are all sorts of reasons for this. Money comes into it, as do resources.
It seems people who should be in hospital are instead being sent to prison. This upsets me. Is it not totally inhumane that, in the 21st century, we are putting seriously ill people behind bars?
The history of how the UK has dealt with mental illness is a long and traumatic story. I had a half-brother, thirteen years older than me, who died eleven years ago. He was a chronic alcoholic for many, many years. He was basically living rough and was put into a mental institution every time the police found him on the streets. Such institutions were just a place to dump people alcoholics and other ill people and, I suppose, if they still existed now, that’s where the heroin addicts would be.
There needs to be a big shift of resources because Cornton Vale’s costs are significant about £11.5 million every year. But there’s probably a lack of confidence in non-custodial disposals by courts. The media doesn’t help because they talk down initiatives such as community service. We have to provide evidence that these projects are actually really tough things to do and are far better options than spending between £30,000 and £40,000 on keeping one person in prison for a year. The current Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Kenny MacAskill, has been quite clear that if we keep sending so many people to prison there will be less opportunity to do something positive, because our prisons are overcrowded.
Public fear is obviously a concern. If you have been a victim of crime, irrespective of what level of crime it was, you will want retribution. But if your understanding of the world is such that the only way this can happen is for somebody to be removed from society and placed in custody for six months, to watch TV and do nothing, then a huge educational awareness job needs to be done. The chances are that prisoners are in a cycle of offending, which is linked to drug addiction, mental illness, poor housing and poor education.
I’m convinced the country would be no less safe if many low-level offenders served their sentences in the community. Prison doesn’t work for short-term offenders because we don’t have enough time to work with them. We are spending between £15,000 and £20,000 on sending one person to prison for six months, while we could be spending £5,000 on some other community-based intervention. This would also remove the stigma of having been in prison, which shuts a lot of doors not just for employment but housing-wise as well. Also, while still in the community these women could keep their family links and there would be fewer risks to their children.
Of course, people will say: “If a governor is saying prison doesn’t work, we should get rid of him.” If you ask those same people what a governor’s job is, they might say that it’s up to the governor to “cure” people so they don’t commit crime. Well, how do they expect me to do that? Often, you hear that we’re being “too soft” on prisoners, that they need to be punished and treated badly so that the deterrent of going back inside will prevent them from committing crimes. But that would be going back to the days when we had staff and prisoners being injured. You have to treat people with respect and dignity and give them a reasonable regime. If you give somebody the idea they’re not worth treating like a normal person, they will behave in the only way they can, which is to fight back.
Is it true that a lot of the women in Cornton Vale have been imprisoned for petty offences?
I have to admit there is a growing amount of violent crime and an increasing number of long-term prisoners here. There’s also a worrying increase in bad attitudes and a lot more violence between prisoners. It’s low-level, and some things we don’t see, but we do have fights, bullying and intimidation. There seems to be growing numbers of young women who are quite happy to threaten any type of authority figure, including prison staff, with violence and bad behaviour, so there is a concern there.
But Kenny MacAskill has been very upfront about the fact there are too many people in prison, including too many women, and the Prisons Commission [the independent Scottish Prisons Commission, looking at the purpose and impact of imprisonment in contemporary Scotland, (October, 2007)] is asking whether Scotland wants to keep building prisons and sending more and more people to prison, or whether we want to be more like the Scandinavian countries that have a different approach? Do we really want to have 12,000 people in Scottish prisons in twenty years time? [Prison Statistics Scotland’s data show an average daily population of 7,835, (2008-2009)]. Maybe the Prison Service should be saying: “Yeah, give us more prisons we want to build a business,” but we don’t. We all know there are too many people coming through our doors.
You see many of the same women coming back into prison time and again. How does this make you feel?
You see two different types of prisoner. There are those who are sent here for fraud, say, who don’t have a drug problem. They may have worked for companies where they had access to money and, having committed fraud, got caught. They often receive quite heavy sentences and the life they experience in prison horrifies them because it’s so different from the, probably middle-class, lifestyle they had outside. You tend to never see these women again. But the women who come from poor backgrounds, with poor life chances, who are constantly told they are useless, who are getting ordered about all the time and told that if they don’t do this or that they are going to get assaulted or abused for many of them a spell in Cornton Vale every so often is seen as respite. We have women who leave saying: “My life is crap on the outside and, by the way, Governor, how do I get two years instead of six months? How do I get four years instead of two?” They may be quite candid about the fact they want to come back, and that’s really sad...
I can see how this might feed the argument that prisons are simply too comfortable for prisoners. You must be very accustomed to this point of view.
The classic spur for this point of view is our hair and beauty salon, which we established for two reasons: to give prisoners the chance to learn a skill they can use to get a job; and to improve the self-esteem of women who may have had terrible lives. Those who do the full course tend to be long-term prisoners. But some women change dramatically after just a visit to the hairdressers, or even just getting their nails done. Whenever this subject is raised in the press it’s made to look as if prisoners are being pampered. Certain newspapers will always latch onto the fact some of our murderers are doing the hairdressing. Which is true. A murderer cuts my hair, and she also does my wife’s hair we pay for it and so do other people. It gives this woman a sense of motivation and belief that she is good at something. Hopefully she’ll make a success of this training when she leaves, although the big issue for her will be the courage of potential employers. In fact, the day after the first episode of Girls Behind Bars [BBC Scotland documentary on Cornton Vale, (2008)] was shown, a girl with a placement at a hairdressers was told to leave. The owner of the business felt there was a risk somebody would find out they had a Cornton Vale prisoner working with them. That’s a real danger. People have the motivation and the desire to go and do something new but doors are often closed to them. And if they never get a chance they might just say: “Well, what’s the point?”
Are measures such as ASBOs [Anti-Social Behaviour Orders] effective in deterring crime?
ASBOs actually concern me a bit. Some women are in here for breaching ASBOs, which means people are moving quickly from a civil offence to a criminal offence. In some cases, ASBOs almost seem like a fast-track to prison, but if you are a sheriff and have somebody before you who has had several opportunities to repay their debt to society, ultimately you’re going to feel this person has had enough chances. So they go to prison for a short time, and next thing they are back in court again, then back in prison. I don’t have statistics to back this up, but it would appear that once people have been given a prison sentence a court is more likely to give them another one. But why try prison ten times and not try some of the other options more than once or twice?
What can the prison do to help change the cycle of people’s offending?
We employ staff who have great relationships with prisoners, but when those prisoners leave the gate, that’s it our staff are not involved with them anymore. All over the place, organisations and government bodies are sitting with pots of money that are ring-fenced and can’t be shared. Take Open Secret [Scottish charity operating in the Forth Valley, with office bases in Falkirk, Stirling and Alloa], an organisation that works with victims of sexual abuse. This is a very important agency for our prison, but I don’t have money to pay them to come in and do their work they have to bid for funding from all these different pots that are provided by the government. I think we need to let our staff work in the community and have more people from the community working in here. We receive £11.5 million of funding a year, the vast majority of which is allocated for staff salaries, social work contracts, education contracts, doctors’ fees, medical expenses, prescription drugs. There’s only a few hundred thousand pounds left, so there’s little scope to change the way we operate.
There has been some suggestion that retired prison staff, or staff coming to the end of their service, could continue to work for two or three days a week. Their job would be a bit like the life coaches who work for Routes Out of Prison [part of the Scottish Wise Group (founded 1983)], a programme which employs ex-offenders to come in and befriend prisoners and then, for six weeks after their release, will help them reintegrate into society. It’s mainly based in Glasgow and, again, there is an issue of always having to fight for the money. If we were able to offer part-time jobs for people to meet prisoners while they are here, and continue to have a relationship when they are released, that could have some great benefits. But if any prison was to introduce this, we would be crossing boundaries. Social work and voluntary agencies would be knocking on my door and asking: “What are you doing? Are you trying to take business off us?”
The Scottish Prison Service invests a huge amount of resources into trying to stop long-term prisoners re-offending. If you get a sentence of four years or more you’re going to be given all sorts of opportunities that will help you when you’re released. But if you’re serving under four years those resources aren’t available. If you’re regularly receiving sentences of between three and six months over a period of twenty years and some criminal careers last that long you would end up doing the same time as a “lifer” but would have no real help addressing your offending behaviour.
How do you see the future?
What’s happening right now is quite exciting. The Cabinet Secretary for Justice wants to pursue the option that fewer people go to prison and more resources go to communities with a view to reducing crime. The first spark of that has been lit and we can now go ahead with the legislation. How much it gets watered down due to the parliamentary process and party discussions, I don’t know, but there appears to be a certain amount of political will at the moment. Perhaps if we can see the numbers of prisoners reducing and can see that crime is not going up, that might just be what we need to convince the public it’s not such a bad idea to empty some of our prisons. If we can get prisoner numbers down, we will have far more time and resources to persuade the ones we are left with to engage with us and change their criminal lifestyle. Throughout the history of imprisonment the use of custody has always been contested, and the current position is no different: there will always be tensions between the use of prison for retribution, punishment, deterrence and rehabilitation. But running a prison will always be fascinating and challenging, and hopefully successful in making a positive difference to society.
D, drug dealer and former prisoner in Cornton Vale
D and I used to live in the same block of flats in Tillydrone, Aberdeen, when I was working as an artist in residence there in 2007. I knew what she did for a living but I liked her regardless she was almost always a good laugh and fun to hang out with. It’s very much thanks to D that I became interested in the subject of women in prison. I had never heard of Cornton Vale before she told me about her first spell of detention there in 1998. Now, she knew that she was at risk of getting caught. But, because of the crack she smoked, she was often careless, high and hyper. Her life as a dealer was known to everyone in the neighbourhood, and it was me who let the police in on a night in January when they came buzzing, ten men strong. I watched through the spy hole in my door as they took D down the stairs in handcuffs. I felt bad, but she was back again the next day. “Don’t worry, they would have gotten me anyway,” she said. “It’s happened before.” Sometime in 2008 she got caught again and charged with possession of drugs and concern of supply, by which stage I was living in Glasgow. She was sent to Cornton Vale on remand, while awaiting a court date ten years after her first spell in prison, and now 33 years old. I went twice to visit her, and it was great to see her off the drugs and looking healthy. She phoned me shortly after she got out and I went straight up to Aberdeen to conduct this interview.
Aberdeen, 20 January 2009
Eva Merz: So D, you got caught dealing drugs and spent time in prison again. What happened?
D: I got busted with a quarter ounce of heroin, £290 in cash and a set of scales. They charged me and my boyfriend and somebody else with supplying, and with possession of speed and hash. My boyfriend got caught with a point-five of crack and got charged for chucking it oot the window. We were all in the house together when the door went in.
You ended up being on remand for almost six months. How was that?
Yeah, six days short of six months. I was in Younger House, the remand building at Cornton Vale. It was different this time in the sense that I was remanded instead of convicted. You don’t know what’s happening to you and can only wait till you get your court dates through. You see so many people coming and going. They’re maybe remanded for three weeks or something, so you see them getting moved on. I knew a lot of the staff. I left a different block for convicted prisoners ten years ago and this time, when I walked into remand, it was the same staff. Some of them were saying: “It’s D we haven’t seen her for a while!” They always remember me as “D with the laugh”. You have ups and downs. When I first went in, there was a girl I already knew, but after a few weeks she got out. Then the screws find someone else to put in your cell. You just hope it’s someone you get on with, someone hygienic. I was lucky with my “co-pilots”. Whenever they get out or get sentenced and move on you’re pleased for them, but I was really close to two of my co-pilots so I missed them a lot when they left.
In the ten years since you were in prison last time, the female prison population in Scotland has almost doubled. Did you feel there were a lot more people in there? In what other ways has the prison changed?
It’s changed a lot with the overcrowding. You’re locked up more, especially as the prison is often short-staffed. People are living on top of each other and you never get a chance to spend time on your own, so naturally tensions build and arguments escalate. The quality of the food has gone down, but I guess they try their best, having to feed so many on the budget they have. You get a half pint of milk a day, for your tea, coffee and cereal, but you’re lucky if you get two cups of coffee. The meal choices aren’t great but they recently changed the menus. It used to mostly be kormas or curries and nut cutlets for vegetarians, and everything went with mushy peas. Now at lunchtime it’s salad wraps. If they served that in a men’s jail there would be riots.
You don’t feel the difference so much being in remand, but as a convicted you would. There are fewer jobs for people than before. You have to be doing over eighteen months as a convicted to get a job, but you get a block wage of something like three pounds a week. Now, you gotta pay your tobacco, your coffee, your toiletries, your stamps, your phone credit and all this stuff, so if you don’t have any family sending in money you’re buggered. On remand you’re not usually allowed to work, but because remanded and convicted prisoners aren’t supposed to mix they need somebody from remand to feed remanded prisoners they also need people to clean. In our block, if it was completely full, there were 85 people, and I think there were nine jobs. Somebody cleans the little medicine tubs and gets a few pounds for doing that. Four of us worked in the pantry, feeding the prisoners, and there were four cleaners. That’s the only jobs they have for remand prisoners. I got one quite quickly, but only because they knew me from before and knew I was a good worker. I started off as a dining room cleaner and when somebody left the pantry I got moved up there. That’s the best paid job you can get £10.80 a week.
What were the other women like? Did they seem different to the women ten years ago?
I never mixed with a lot of the girls. I usually take time to get to know people and tend to stick to the same few. I wasn’t there to bitch and bully and cause trouble. I kept my head down and did my time with people who wanted to do the same. I guess we did have a bitch, but not in a nasty way. I don’t know if it’s because I’m older now, but there seemed to be an awful lot of young ones. There’s a lot of people who have been in and out. People I knew from my last sentence are still going in and out of jail. There’s those women and then just a heap of young lassies. I suppose it depends on the upbringing they’ve had, but some are probably, and unfortunately, better off in jail.
Are there more foreign prisoners than before?
Maybe a couple a few black people, and there was a Polish lassie and a Latvian lassie. People are coming up from England, ken, to sell drugs. My family comes doon fae Aberdeen to visit and, because it’s so far for them, coming all the way for just half-hour visits, I can book two sessions and see them for an hour instead. The staff are thinking of stopping that because there are so many people now, ken, fae England and other places, too many people requesting it, and we are taking up two sessions, which is obviously an extra session that somebody else disnae get. Imagine having to travel all that distance for half an hour.
How did you cope with not knowing whether you were going to be convicted or how long you might serve? How did you pass the time?
You just have to get on with it, but it’s the not knowing that gets frustrating. Are you going to get out or get time, and how long? Will you lose the house, kids, dog? There are no board games, bingo or education. Well there’s art and crafts once a week, but only six women are allowed to go. There’s also a computer class once a week, supposedly, but I put my name down six weeks in a row and it was never shouted. Sometimes it’s the staff not bothering to take us over there. There’s the gym. There’s the library, but nobody is allowed to use it, so you can’t even get a fucking book to read. That was really annoying because I like to read. I heard that the library’s just there for show, so that outside visitors think we have access to all these facilities. There is Ross House, for the ones that have more mental health problems and probably shouldnae even be in jail. They are under observation because they are self-harmers or on suicide watch. Ross is the newer building and they’ve got a pool table and karaoke. We were not even allowed a set of playing cards nothing. It’s unreal. Once, I think, they played bingo. It depends on the staff, but then people spoil it. If they don’t want to play bingo because, say, there’s drugs on the go, everybody gets locked up and they stop the bingo. Some people spoil it for everybody else.
Was there more violence in the prison than ten years ago?
I would say it’s just the same. It’s usually just petty violence because you’re living in such a close environment and you can’t get away fae each other. In a lot of ways it’s just little kids that have temper tantrums and scream at each other. But I wouldnae say it’s violent, no. Men’s prisons are a lot worse. If anything it will be little cat fights and usually it disnae get very far because, with the commotion and everything, the screws are alerted to it pretty quickly. They are right on top of it.
Did you get any drugs inside?
I got drugs into the prison twice. A friend came doon with a parcel and I got it through my mouth: he just kissed me. I got 27 blues, a joint of grass and a half gram of brown; I also got a half-tenth of white. So that was quite good of him. I dinnae ken how I managed to get that back to the block because I couldnae swallow it was about the size of a golf ball, wrapped up in a bit of blue polythene bag. The warden never checked my mouth properly. The other time I got something was from a lassie I had shared a cell with. After she got out, she came on a visit with a tenner bag and a joint of grass, so that was good of her. That’s the only times I got drugs in but you would hear that there was stuff on the go, like they would say: “There’s a lassie doon the stair that’s just come in and she’s got stuff.” She’ll give people she knows, but she didnae ken me, so I just wouldnae go asking for it. I mean, sometimes you would get it depends on how much they come in with: it could be a half gram or it could be a fucking half ounce, ken? If it’s a half ounce they’ll be selling it and it’ll be on the go for a while, and everybody will be going on about it. A couple of weeks before I got out I got a hold of a bit and I was buckled. It was so obvious and the screws were taking the piss out of me the next day, saying: “Oh, you were having a party last night, were you?” They could see I was wasted. When I go and take a bit it’s soon noticeable because my eyes are pinned. So I was noticed.
They could see it but didn’t do anything about it?
As far as I’m aware, they’ll move the person who they think has the drugs if it becomes a problem. They stopped doing the drug tests they did before. But, of course, I was on remand I don’t know how it works with convicted prisoners. If you’re on methadone they give you the odd test.
Who gets methadone in the prison?
You get methadone when you get remanded but only if you were already on it outside. If not, when you’re convicted they’ll put you on methadone. Personally, I wouldnae have seen the point after being clean for so long in remand it would have seemed stupid to get addicted to methadone. However, the point really is to reduce the risk of overdosing when you get out, because people don’t realise the amount they took before could kill them.
What do they do when people come in with a heroin habit and get withdrawals?
Well, they’ll always give you a DRP [Drug Reduction Programme]. You get a DF, that’s Dihydrocodeine, 120 milligrams for three days. You get three blues, that’s Valium, thirty milligrams. Every three days they reduce it, so you go down to 90 milligrams of DF and then you go down to two vallies and eventually you get a Zimovane tablet each day for the last week. I started feeling it when I came off the DF it was about five or six weeks this time until I was over the withdrawals and getting some proper sleep. I would definitely say that, out of all the times I have come off heroin completely and that’s not a lot this was the easiest by far. I think mostly because it was heroin I came off, as opposed to methadone. And I had just started seeing someone, so I was thinking of him and it took my mind off how bad I was feeling.
What did being released feel like? What did you do?
The last time I was in jail I was convicted, so I knew when I was getting out. This time, because I was on remand, I didnae ken what was happening. I spent six months in jail, went into court, pled guilty and the judge gave me two years probation. And then you walk out the court and it’s nae even exciting. It’s just really weird because you expect a sentence. Obviously I was pleased, but my mindset was still in prison. The main thing for me was money. They let me out with the £20 I had and it takes about four to five weeks to sort out benefits. I’ve been much more depressed this time for some reason. I got to keep the house this time and it was strange coming back and seeing it. The state of it got to me. The family who had looked after the place had wrecked it and sold what they could. Sentimental items, bought brand new or second-hand, but never stolen. I know it’s material objects, but they still meant a lot to me. Now I feel like I’m starting over from scratch. I just don’t seem to have the motivation to do anything, and therefore nothing gets done.
Now that you have come out of prison, have you gone back to dealing drugs?
Aye, I need to make money and somebody offered me a lay-on, where you get the drugs first and pay later, so I took it. I went three days without money and my mum had already put money in for me every week when I was in the jail, so I wisnae gonnae ask her for mair. I mean, I had folk coming to me the day I got out, asking if I had anything to sell. I thought if I started dealing it would take a few weeks to build up business again. It didnae. Right fae the start people were coming round, saying they were glad I was back. What did they do for the six months I was away? They must have scored from somewhere, but they were quite happy to come back to me, and they knew where I stayed. Folk just phoned me up. I don’t even know how they got my number. But I’m not as busy as I was because I choose not to be. I go to my bed at night and there’s nae 24-hour service.
Can you say a little more about the drugs scene in Aberdeen?
It has changed so much. To think how easy it was for me just six months before. I could get every minute of the day and during the night. I was doing so well that I had a driver pretty much on call 24 hours a day. It was a good time. Since I’ve got out it’s terrible. The quality of the crack and heroin has gone down dramatically: it’s not as available and a lot of my contacts are not around anymore. I’m not selling the crack right now, because I can’t get the quality and the quantity I want regularly. Apparently it’s really dry, but they still have the same drug problems in Aberdeen and they always will.
Is it true there’s a lot of crack cocaine connected to the prostitution scene in Aberdeen?
Oh aye, definitely. I don’t know if it’s the prostitutes getting their punters into it, or if they are into it already. I think it originated from the cocaine some of the men would’ve liked their cocaine if they could afford prostitutes. Crack cocaine is just a step up and, if they cannae get a hold of cocaine, they can get a hold of the crack. If ye dinnae ken anybody, then you’ll find it doon the shore. It also makes sex feel more intense when you’re on crack. We had fucking amazing sex on crack. Well, snowballs really, you mix crack and heroin and inject both together. Amazing feeling …
And with crack you don’t get the same physical dependency as with heroin?
No, but you still crave it more and more. It seems to get a hold of people a lot mair than the gear. Before I went to jail this time, I was taking crack so much I didn’t need the gear to come doon. That was my normality being on crack all the time. Now I don’t take it half as much, but the stuff I was getting before I went to jail was really, really good. That’s nae on the go anymore. The guy that sold it got caught, so he’s in jail. There’s supposed to be 25 ounces buried somewhere … The stuff that’s on the go now is just shite. It puts you off buying it’s a waste of money. With being in jail I’ve been off it for six months and now I don’t feel the need. Then there are days where I do, but I don’t understand how people get this huge desperation to make themselves go and rob somebody for money. They will do anything.
This time you didn’t get sentenced, but you have a probation hanging over your head. You were also talking about three strikes…
If I get in trouble while I’m on probation I could get done for breaching my probation and re-sentenced for that offence. Regardless of the probation, I would still be on my third strike and that means that, if I get caught again, I get seven years. When you’re on your third strike you’re automatically sent to the High Court. They usually say seven years but, probably because of the over-crowding, you are finding that some people are maybe only getting four or five years.
How does that prospect make you feel?
It’s nae really worth the risk. It’s nae like I’ve got enough money put away to get a villa in Spain or whatever. It wouldnae be so bad if I was making that kind of money. Then you could accept that, if you did end up in jail, you would have something to come out to, but just doing it to get by isnae worth it. I’d probably just rather stop… but I’ve got a habit and I need to feed it, so the chances of stopping in the near future are slim. I’ve been doing this over ten years and it’s become a way of life. I didn’t do bad at school and I worked till I was nineteen. I miss working in a way and like the thought of running my own business a legal one! But where do I start? What would I do? As an addict I’m lucky I can sell drugs because I can’t steal and rob, so my only other option would have been prostitution. I’m doing something illegal, but all I’m doing is supplying to people who are already addicted. I haven’t got them hooked on it, I’m nae selling to kids. I’m selling to people who are addicted and, if it wisnae me they were buying from it would be somebody else. Whether I stopped dealing or not, you are still gonna get people breaking into places for their habit.
The so-called “War on Drugs” is about stopping people who supply, but it seems that, mostly, they only catch the little ones…
Aye, they are catching people like me, but they’re nae getting the people who are taking it into the country and the people who are taking ounces and kilos up the road. Those people will come up here, stay in somebody’s house and spend three days to a week, till they run out. Then they go back down the road and come back up with a new supply, and they might go to a different place. So they’re dotting about different places all the time, houses that aren’t known for dealing. By the time the police find out, they’re usually gone. Of course, these people are nae using their own names they are using aliases and nobody really knows who they are. Anyway, as far as dealers go, I’m at the bottom of the ladder.
I don’t want to be doing this all my life. I think there’s time yet to turn my life around, possibly have a family, but it’s the financial side I worry about. I’m not up to date with computers and I’ve been used to being my “own boss” for so long. What company is going to employ en ex-junkie who hasn’t had a job for ten years? I spent one year and nine months in the jail and another six months on remand. In between that I’ve been dealing for ten years. What kind of job am I gonna get that’s gonna get me decent money so I can afford to pay the bills? I’d love to go to college, but I’m not even sure what I would do.
If I try and put myself in your situation, I can understand why you think you can’t just go out there and get a job. But, supposing you wanted to, do you know what kind of support there is?
There’s nae support or services. Well, you have got [Scottish voluntary organisation] SACRO [Safeguarding Communities Reducing Offending]. They will help you get a house, but you have to be in the parole system, which means you gotta do four years or more in prison. Then they can’t just kick you out of jail. Whatever services there may be, I can’t think of any apart from SACRO. I wouldn’t have the first clue who they are, what they can do and how to get in touch with them. A lot of them will only help you in certain situations, whether it’s because you have been in prison or are a single mother, but I am a single woman with no children, and I wasn’t part of the parole system, so I feel there’s no help for me out there. In Aberdeen the facilities to help drug addicts are practically non-existent. The few we do have are not suitable for everyone, especially the Christian ones who want you to go “cold turkey” while trying to get you to “see the light”. The DPS [Drug Problem Service] only give you methadone and you have to wait possibly two years to see them. They can help you get into rehab, but you have to wait another few years unless you can afford to pay privately. That’s why you’re better off going to the fucking jail. It’s so frustrating. Obviously you need to want to come off drugs yourself, but everyone needs support.
Is the threat of prison enough of a deterrent to make you want to stop?
No, but I think it depends what you’ve got outside to keep you out of prison. If I wisnae with my boyfriend I would just carry on regardless. I think it also depends on your upbringing. Some girls are unfortunately happier and better-off in prison, so they commit crime just to go back to jail. I have a better life outside, but the thought of prison doesn’t deter me altogether.
Any last words?
I look back on my life of drugs and, for the most part, I still don’t regret a thing. I’ve had a lot of good times and, if I hadn’t smoked or injected the lot, I could have had a few quid saved up by now. Now I’m getting older and have met someone I hope I’ll settle down with. He’s the only one I’ve considered having children with. I think I’m at a time now where I would like to stop, change my life and leave it to the younger ones. For a number of years I suffered domestic violence and I possibly used drugs to cope with that. Now he’s out of my life completely. Maybe it’s time the drugs were too! Hopefully one day it will all be behind me…
A Retired High Court Judge
I have never met this man before. A mutual friend of ours has set up the meeting because he thought it would be useful for the project. I’ve been invited to visit the judge in his home, bang in the middle of Edinburgh’s New Town. He has warned me that he is not sure about doing an interview because he does not like the idea of retired old judges sounding off in public. So we call it a conversation instead. He gets straight into the talking before I have even sat down in a cosy armchair in his living room. I’m a bit behind and not sure how to ask for permission to record but this is important so, ten minutes into the conversation, I force myself to sneak the recorder out of my bag. Luckily he agrees to my switching it on, so here we go: there’s nothing like a bit of sounding off. However, I think he prefers to remain anonymous.
Edinburgh, 5 March 2009
The Judge: Politicians want to send messages. They commission reports and, if they don’t get the answer they want, they just tear up the report. Two recent examples were about whether ecstasy should be a class A or class B drug and whether cannabis should be B or C. I think it was on cannabis that the Home Secretary was quoted as saying to the chairman of the commission: “This is not the answer I expected from you!” She may have been misquoted I don’t trust the press but it’s mad. I’ve thought for a very long time that, really, politicians are just completely blinkered and unwilling to go back to the beginning and ask: “Are we right in our basic approach in treating this as a criminal matter?”
Eva Merz: Is that not because politicians are scared of being called “soft on crime” and think the public wants to hear something else?
Actually there’s no evidence that the public does want to hear these things. There have been studies on sentencing and if you ask people with no involvement, they tend to say sentencing should be very fierce. But equally, if people serve on a jury and hear all the facts, they are often shocked to hear the sentence. In other words, if you know something about it, you cease to want heavy sentencing. I don’t think the public is after heavy sentencing, and certainly not for things they know their own youngsters could have been involved in; people don’t want heavy sentencing for minor drug dealing, and far less for simple possession. I suspect the public would be interested in ideas of decriminalising, not just the soft drugs but maybe hard drugs as well. Decriminalise, but regulate. If you regulate, it doesn’t need to be criminalised. I would say that even for the class A drugs.
Of course there are some bad crimes committed in relation to drug addiction.
Oh, I saw that constantly and that’s why I can say a certain amount about it. I saw serious crime armed robberies on shops and petrol stations, little post offices, horrible crimes with sawn-off shotguns, the lot where it was for drug reasons. At High Court level, our job was in some ways much easier than at the Sheriff level. On the whole, if the crime charged was proved, it was so serious it was self-evident that we had no choice but prison. Quite often people wouldn’t be found guilty and you did have to sentence for minor things which had been proved, but it’s usually the sheriff who is faced with the awful choice: here is someone who has never been to prison before, so what do I do? It’s hard to generalise, but I think most sheriffs do see prison as the undesirable last resort. They don’t send people to prison through choice, but then the choices are so miserably limited. Community service, I think, does often sort of succeed, but it’s almost impossible to build into that the real problems of housing and employment. You can’t give a power to the court to say this person should be given a nice house and a good job!
Now I just saw the front page of one of the tabloids. It was about prisoners in Cornton Vale being given keys to their own cells. The article made it sound almost as if prisoners could lock themselves out of prison…
In some of the more modern prisons the inmates would indeed have keys to their own cells, but the cells of course are within a wing which they wouldn’t have keys for. Oh, it’s just rubbish, but it’s classic. I don’t know if the British press is uniquely awful, but any country I have been to seems not to have a press like the British. It’s dreadful. The old Daily Express was fairly right-wing, but it wasn’t endlessly nasty about crime and punishment. I think it’s got worse. I go to France a lot, and the French don’t really have an equivalent to this howling, horrible press. In Denmark and the rest of Scandinavia are there better alternatives to prison or community service?
I don’t know much about what is going on in Denmark at the moment, but we surely don’t lock up as many people, women or men. I worked in a residential drug rehab in Norway in 1991-92. This was a place in the countryside, about 150 miles from Oslo, where most of the clients came from. One thing I had to get used to was that the Child Welfare authorities could force people under the age of eighteen into rehab, but the way they looked at it was that these kids were given an opportunity. There were no locks on the doors and sometimes somebody would run away, but they tended to come back again. It was a community of 30-40 people on a big old farm where everybody had to work. We had school classes, therapy groups and all sorts of activities, of course in a completely drug-free environment. After one year these young people could decide for themselves whether they wanted to leave or stay of their own free will, and many stayed. People over eighteen would come in voluntarily anyway. There was quite a high success rate it was good.
It’s very hard to transpose that into a British set-up, isn’t it? I know Norway a little bit, and it quite often strikes me that social attitudes are very, very different there. There’s a sort of feeling that people can and should be made to behave. You would have thought that Norway and Scotland would be somewhat alike, but they’re not. Even if Scotland gained independence it would not be like a small Scandinavian country it’s an entirely different history. Nonetheless, the kind of solution one is looking for is one where you can get people to see themselves differently. “Hope” is the word: some hope that they could have a decent life because, I’m afraid, a lot of people are hopeless: I don’t mean they are “hopeless cases”, but that they are “without hope”.
The fact is that most of the women in Cornton Vale aren’t dangerous: the violence, when there is any, exists mostly within certain social groups, so the chances of an outsider being harmed are minimal. Would you agree with this?
The British press suggests that you’re in constant danger; it’s not the American fear of terrorism either: it’s fear of assault, robbery, rape... And it’s completely unreal. For 99 percent of the population, such fears will never be realised. Whatever offences the women in Cornton Vale have committed, it is usually in the context of a world where the men around them were already committing these offences it’s a knock-on effect that the girls get involved. Some of the recent reporting suggests that female crime is actually increasing, but traditionally it has always been because their men-folk were already in this kind of a mess. In the criminal courts it always impressed me hugely when the girlfriends, the mothers and the sisters had to give evidence. On the whole they were very impressive, trying to cope with dreadful, drunken, useless husbands, brothers and sons. They were obviously fighting a pretty good fight to keep some level of decency and sanity in this messy world. It’s particularly sad when you feel that, because their men-folk are victims of society, the women are victims twice over.
The reality is that residential rehab and other interventions don’t cost any more than keeping people in prison in fact, it’s often cheaper…
Yes, surely one of the routes should be to get away from prisons to rehab. The important thing is rehabilitation from drug use, but this brings me back to the whole issue of criminalisation: you can rehabilitate people for a time, but if they go back to a world where drugs are still a major, and criminal, element of their lives, would it hold? But if you were getting away from the criminal view of drugs, you could try to sort it out, not in the crime and punishment area, but in the social arena.
Can you in any way see that happening in the UK?
No I can’t, and it utterly depresses me. You get careful reports from well-composed commissions who say: “Look, don’t get too steamed up about cannabis.” Downgrading isn’t decriminalising, but at least it’s a step in the right direction. Similarly, don’t treat ecstasy as a kind of evil word and get hung up about it. Partly, it could be policy that we don’t ever prosecute for simple possession, but as soon as it’s a vast amount, you’re talking about possession for dealing. We are wasting everyone’s time and money trying to control drug use, but we can’t control it.
I’m reading everything I can get my hands on about women in prison, and most writers come to the same conclusion: we have to intervene earlier and allocate our resources differently so that we can help people change their lives. Most people, when you ask them, say they would just like to live a normal life; but if they’ve had a criminal career or been in and out of prison, there’s no way they can see that happening and if they have a drug habit on top of that, where do they even start?
The depressing thing is that this is all known it has been discovered, it’s been found individually by each person who goes and looks at it that these are the problems, the sorts of answers that there might be. I think the people who impose the sentencing know it too: sentences are imposed because one can do nothing else. Surely there will be exceptions, but I don’t think anyone is content when they are sending a woman to prison.
I hate the expression “zero tolerance”. If you translate that back into basic language it means: “I’m going to make up my mind without knowing the facts. I’m not even going to listen to the facts, just in case I find myself having to modify my preconceptions.” Zero tolerance? More like zero intelligence! It’s a politician’s phrase, like the “war on drugs”.
Is prison, in your opinion, a deterrent? In the case of people who have a desperate or chaotic lifestyle, do they even think about it?
Prison in itself is not a particularly good deterrent it’s more about the punishment, the thought of being caught and punished in whatever form that takes. No doubt corporal punishment is a deterrent, like being beaten or hanged or, as in certain Arab countries, having a hand cut off for theft. I think that would be a very good deterrent. Fortunately we don’t feel justified in using it here. I think that prison is likewise something we just shouldn’t feel we can do. It’s so awful in its consequences that one wants society to say: “Just as we don’t cut off people’s hands, we don’t lock them up.” It’s mad, of course, because you have got to have something somewhere that you can do, but it’s a pretty frightful thing you are doing to someone when you send them to prison. One of the functions of prison is to let society forget about what goes on. We are just putting people in an oubliette where we can forget about them. I’m not really good at despair, but rationally one would despair…
An experienced prison warden
This is the first time I’ve ever published an interview without proper consent. Although the prison warden initially agreed for me to use this interview, I didn’t get the final permission from the prison’s communication authorities or whatever they are called and therefore I want to protect the identity of this particular warden and take the blame myself. All I can tell you is that I was hugely impressed by the way this individual interacted and spoke about the prisoners. We sat in a tiny, cramped office in one of the prison blocks and I got a real feel for how stressful the job must be. Prisoners and staff kept coming in and out of the office asking questions, the phone rang constantly, and all the while this warden remained calm and focused. Whereas somebody like me would have had a nervous breakdown, this warden deserves a special medal for humanity and compassion.
Cornton Vale, 12 March 2009
The warden: I’ve always been a people person. Applying for this job wasn’t so much thinking about helping people and making a difference: it was just that the job fascinated me. I couldn’t even say I knew anything about the Prison Service because I really didn’t; I just thought it would be very interesting and challenging. It’s a job I’ve never been bored in and I still feel the same buzz and motivation coming into work many years later. I’ve been in every house block in Cornton Vale and worked with all different categories of females, whether they be untried, young offenders or the convicted adult population. When I started, the Prison Service was very much a discipline service, and it was quite hard to get my head round some of the ludicrous rules and regulations. The prisoner numbers were so low. On a busy lock-up, we were dealing with 150 women. Now it’s over 440. That’s a massive amount of prisoners compared to when I started, but then society has changed and there’s so much that has contributed to that.
The biggest change I’ve seen is the amount of drug addiction. When I started, we didn’t have the same volume of prisoners with addiction and mental health issues, or prisoners informing us about abuse in their lives. Whether the girls just didn’t speak about abuse the same I don’t know, but I’m glad they do now. People don’t realise just how many of these women have suffered some form of abuse in their lives. And that’s why, coming from a happy upbringing, I will never tell a prisoner I know how they feel. I can only begin to imagine and even that wouldn’t touch how it must be for them. When you read some of the girls’ stories or hear them telling you, it’s actually little wonder they’ve ended up in the system, because their lives have just gone out of control. It’s horrendous. It has taken some of the girls years to divulge that they have had abuse in their lives. Some who have been in and out of here on numerous occasions and never indicated or said anything will all of a sudden break down and tell us what happened to them. It’s not always sexual abuse it’s a broad spectrum. We are so limited in the penal system in terms of what we can do with girls and boys who have been abused.
Girls these days are coming in younger and for heavier sentences because they’ve been involved in harder crimes to feed their addictions. They are aggressive, violent and will go to great lengths to regain that feeling of the first hit, even though they will never get it again. When they’re under the influence they do things they would never do sober the addiction has taken over their lives. When I started, we had one “lifer” in Cornton Vale, maximum two. If we got a prisoner in serving two or three years everybody knew about it, and there was a big outcry when somebody committed a murder and got a life sentence. From a public point of view, there’s no hue and cry any more it’s just accepted to a degree.
A lot of the girls who are in for short-term sentences deliberately go out to come back in. The “short-termers” are the habitual offenders. I wish I knew how to stop them offending, but I don’t think not sending them to jail will make any difference unless the resources are available to put into projects outside. The problem for a lot of our girls is that they have nothing outside. For some, coming into prison is the first time anybody has shown genuine care towards them, whether that’s the staff or other prisoners and that’s why a lot of the prisoners get involved in lesbian relationships: they are seeing that other individuals care for them. It’s maybe the first time somebody has told them: “Up you get and make your bed.” They’ll say: “My mum was never bothered, my dad was never there, nobody cared if my shirt was ironed or not,” whereas we will say: “Yes, you will have your dinner, you will clean this room; you’ve got to sleep in it, and so do other people!” In a strange way the girls see this as care from staff, whereas we think of it as discipline. We’re spending time with them, speaking to them without condemning or judging, treating them like human beings. They’re not used to that. Many have been in and out of homes and have lived with habitual offenders, so it’s often learned behaviour they have known no different. Their parents have maybe got them into crime, actually sent them out on their first job or put them on the streets to do horrendous things. Prison is like a safety net for them. Some of them will plead to come into prison, just to get away from whatever’s happening outside.
The discipline element in the prison system was too severe before, but now we need to get a balance back where the guidelines and boundaries are quite clear. I sometimes think we forget about the victims and their families outside. It’s about getting people to accept that, if you do wrong, this is the punishment. The problem with short-term offenders is the amount of chances they’ve had beforehand. They will have had fines they’ve not paid, community service, probation, or a bail they’ve breached. If you look at their background, they’ve been offending and have been given different forms of punishment that haven’t involved jail. Ultimately they’ve known it will end in a prison sentence. I would argue that they have to take responsibility for their own lives and actions, but the majority of prisoners don’t do that. They expect everybody else to take that responsibility.
Eva Merz: You see the short-term prisoners come back to prison time and again. Do you see a change in them the second, third or fourth time?
A lot of the girls are educated when they come into prison. In crime. Particularly after their first or second sentence, they go out knowing more than they did when they came in, because other prisoners will tell them. I see them getting more confident, cheekier and changing from the individuals they first were. With girls that get totally way above their station, particularly if they are starting to give a hard time to other girls, I will bring them in on a one-to-one basis and say: “Can I remind ye …?” But I can understand to a degree: it’s very difficult to live in that environment. Particularly when the numbers are high, it must be scary for a first-time offender. Some girls are vulnerable, very quiet and have no confidence. Many times I’ve told the girls: “Look, you need to go out there and show them you’re not scared. Even if you’re quivering inside, don’t let them see because they will zoom right in on you.”
A lot of the young adults come in with major attitudes. They hate society, hate police, hate prison, hate authority, but they are actually very sad individuals underneath this persona. That’s their coping mechanism. They’re scared and frightened and think they have to be like this all the time for survival. A majority of the young adults are both victims and bullies today they could be the victim, tomorrow the bully. It’s very rewarding working with the young adults but it requires a lot of patience. You need to look beyond this attitude they have, remain calm and just say: “I’m not speaking to you if you’re speaking to me like that.” We chip away at the barrier they have until we actually get the real person, who is weak and vulnerable and scared, and who has nobody they can talk to. Then we start to build their confidence back up and say: “Yes, you are somebody.” We actually get to a stage where we’re laughing together and saying: “Remember when you were a nightmare!” That’s why you need continuity with staff and clear boundaries. What is okay today has to be the same tomorrow. Any human being, particularly a youngster, is going to push the boundaries. That’s part of growing up.
What would you say are some of the more frustrating things about working in the prison?
It’s very difficult to watch the staff getting frustrated because they don’t have time to do what they want to do. We’re fire-fighting every day when the numbers are high. A hospital could be in the same situation, but hospitals have a so-called “bed manager”, whose sole job is to take an overview of where the beds are going to be for new admissions, but that’s what we do all the time in here. We always have to think about how many girls we’re going to get in the next night. In the daily routine, the girls are in and out we’re taking them here, we’re taking them there. You have to-do lists that get carried forward and forward. For example, somebody needs a towel. The staff are so busy getting everything else done that the towel isn’t high on the priority list. Or we haven’t got towels because they’ve all been sent to the laundry so, until they come back at night, with the best will in the world, we haven’t got a towel to give them.
The impact high numbers have on the jail in general is phenomenal, down to the very basics. The prisoner’s mood changes because she thinks that the officer is just saying they don’t have time. People’s tempers fray, the staff gets frustrated, and that all doesn’t make for good relationships. Ninety is a record number of prisoners for us to unlock in this block. If we had 60 we would have had the same amount of staff on. Now, 30 extra prisoners is a lot, bearing in mind they’re just in. The new girls have demands about getting to the doctor or seeing the social worker; their drug habit is chaotic; all they are interested in is their next hit, getting their methadone; they worry about when they’re going to see their kids. They expect these demands to be met within a certain timeframe, and it continues on like this. To do breakfast in the morning you’re talking an hour and a half, and that’s only cereal and a bit of toast. By the time we’ve finished that, we’re straight on to getting the girls out to work, or the health centre they have to go here, they have to go there. Then it’s lunch, then it’s exercise… When numbers are high you keep your head just above the water you deal with issues as they arise and move on. Where it falls down is that we don’t really get to know as much about the girls as we would want to. The staff are asked to write reports on prisoners but they don’t even have time to get to know them. It’s not because they don’t want to, but there is still that element where the girls think we’re just not bothered. If a prisoner wants something, they want it now, regardless how many other prisoners you need to look after. Not all of them, to be fair when they get stable they’re not like that.
You keep saying “when numbers are high”, but do you actually see the numbers going down, realistically?
No, I don’t, unless the law drastically changes. At the end of the day, it comes down to money. You can only deliver an output according to what your resources are. You can’t work miracles when you’re so restricted. That’s why we, as a system, have to look at our priorities here, and our priority is the long-term prisoners, because they’re the ones we’ll get results with. I wish I could say I have an answer for the short-term prisoners but I don’t. There are systems that have to come into play we need to have everybody working together, and the resources.
Something I feel that needs to be talked about more is residential rehab for drug addicts, instead of prison. I know that people don’t come off drugs if they don’t want to, but this is a lot about giving young people the chance to see that they could do something else with their lives. Sometimes it takes years and years, but it doesn’t cost more than having people in prison.
If you send people to rehabilitation solely to concentrate on them individually, you could argue they would be more successful than in prison. In that environment they wouldn’t have the same access to the drugs. We have tried drug-free units in Cornton Vale, but we couldn’t prove that they were successful or unsuccessful because we have never had a record. But it’s extremely difficult, and you are only talking about a minority of girls who are in a goldfish bowl: it’s not as if we can detach them from the other prisoners completely. I would still say that prisoners need to take responsibility, but to give them the strength and confidence to say “no” they need a maximum level of support. It comes down to the importance of who makes the decisions about where the money goes. It’s the tax payers’ money. I’m only talking about the girls, but I’m sure it’s the same for boys, ultimately: if they didn’t have an addiction, they wouldn’t be committing crime, whether it be robbery, prostitution, theft, shoplifting, housebreaking whatever it is to feed their habit.
Of course, people need to be willing to come off the drugs and change their lifestyle, but, for example, if you are in Aberdeen, you might as well forget about getting help. For most people it’s not even an option because they know the services are so limited.
Yes, it depends on what area you come from as to what kind of resources you have, but we strive to achieve very good through-care for the long-term prisoners. Over four years, that’s where the money is and the help is first-class. We take them right through, get them employability and certifications, get them to a level where they can be accepted back into society, make the transition as easy as possible. We’re getting more and more girls down from Aberdeen and we do see, when they are released, that there’s nothing. So then they are back into the same circles again. With the best will in the world, they can be as adamant in here as they like about not going back into crime, but when they are out they have nothing and nobody else.
If you could decide, what major changes would you like to see in Cornton Vale?
In an ideal world I would certainly like to never see girls who have mental health issues and who, quite obviously, should never be in a prison environment. It’s heartbreaking. Society has taken away all the support it had for these individuals. That needs a complete rethink because we will never, ever be successful with these individuals in prison. We can’t solve the problems they have because that takes intense psychiatric care and therapy programmes. For me, that would be the ideal goal: to only have people in prison who should be there, but I suppose that would come down to who you think should be there in the first place. I think females get overlooked at times because, compared to the male population, their numbers are low. But they are just as important. In fact, you could argue they’re more important because the family unit is often destroyed when a female goes to prison not all the time, but for a majority. That’s not necessarily to say the way forward is not sending people to prison, but we need to revisit what the prison system is offering. People can argue differently and say they should all go to prison. Right, okay, but once they get here what should we be doing with them?
We sit here and talk about support, services, therapy, helping people away from crime, while a right-wing spokesperson would say that punishment needs to be tougher to deter crime.
That’s why it depends which government is in power. Where we fail is the statistical side of things when we go to evaluate. We only know our successes if people don’t come back, and we’re only guessing: is it because they’ve stopped offending or just because they haven’t been caught? We haven’t got an end product. All we can go by is our recidivism level, which is high. It would be so good if we could talk about our successes and how we deal with individuals, but that doesn’t help when you’re doing statistics.
If I was a victim and was reading some of the press coverage Cornton Vale gets, it would horrify me and I wouldn’t want to see past that. The reality is not being reported realistically, so people’s perceptions are so, so wrong. The girls themselves, once they have gone through all the withdrawals and are living without drugs, start remembering the levels they stooped to when they were under the influence, and they are horrified; they are disgusted with themselves. They show genuine remorse and they will say they can’t believe what they’ve done…
Dr Andrew Fraser, Director of Health and Care, Scottish Prison Service
The Scottish Prison Service Headquarters is based near the South Gyle Business Park on the outskirts of Edinburgh. I cycle all the way from Haymarket train station, and need a cigarette when I finally arrive, but it transpires that smoking is prohibited, even within the car park. I think that’s funny, but step onto the pavement behind some bushes and watch the building I’m about to enter. It’s slightly intimidating in its sheer size, but I’m thinking: fair enough, the SPS must be a huge organisation. I’m nervous, but it turns out that Dr Fraser is a friendly man. He walks me along the ground floor, into his office and offers me a cup of tea before we start. He has been the SPS Director of Health and Care since April 2006. And he means business.
SPS HQ, Edinburgh, 25 May 2009
Andrew Fraser: I first went to Cornton Vale about ten years ago because we were very concerned about the increased number of suicides there. That was a very sobering initial visit and got me thinking a lot about women in prison and their particular problems, issues and challenges. I think the whole experience of crime and punishment is different for women: the reasons why they offend, the sort of offences they commit, their experience of being caught, the consequences of being caught, the sort of attendant problems they have with drugs, the type of mainly short-term custodial terms they get, the sort of treatment they get in prison and the particular difficulties they experience when trying to reintegrate with their families. Whereas men are fairly loose-knit in their communities, especially when it comes to meaningful relationships, women often have children, they have a place in the family, they are indispensable to a much greater degree. To lose that grip on where you belong and then to try and regain it is a particularly difficult thing to do. Add to that the amount of abuse and the stigma they experience and it’s a very hard uphill struggle for women who offend. You may argue that it’s a problem of degree, that men face these problems too, but not to the extent that women do.
Eva Merz: Often people who are less informed argue that equality should mean women and men doing the same time for the same crime, but here you are giving some reasons why that shouldn’t be so…
Well, yes, and added to this is the particularly punitive approach to drug dealing. A lot of women are put upon to deal drugs, and then get caught. It’s not as if it was their wild idea in the first place. Yes, they know what they are doing, but I have met women in prison who really don’t strike me as the sort of people who want to do bad things. They are on the wrong end, usually, of an abusive relationship and I use the word “abusive” broadly. A very large proportion of women in prison have dependent-aged children. An imprisoned mother successfully wrecks any chance they had to grow up in a normal environment. There’s an assumption that a woman with a drug problem and an offending problem is bad for her child, but you can’t necessarily say that.
Sentencing is all about taking people in context. You have to look at people’s social circumstances not just the severity of the offence and any mitigating factors, previous offending, people who are dependent on them, and the likelihood that they could come to any harm by being locked up. The chances of women being damaged by the experience of incarceration are higher than for men in most cases. Women have a pretty raw deal.
You go back 50 years and people were writing reports about closing all women’s prisons because of the relatively low-level, minor degree of their offending. Then we go to the report done by the Inspectors of Prisons and Social Work in Scotland in 1998, which argued that the prison population should half. It was submitted to the Minister of Justice at the time [Henry McLeish]. And, lo and behold, our prison population today has actually doubled. In 2008 we had another report, the McLeish Report [Scotland’s Choice, Report of the Scottish Prison Commission (chaired by Henry McLeish)], which argued that our prison population should be cut severely. And what is happening? It’s rising spectacularly and women’s incarceration rates more than men’s. We need to ask why that is. None of us understand it in terms of people getting “badder” in this country. Women’s offences here are predominantly non-violent and predominantly drug related, as is the case the world over. There’s often a sort of tacit agreement between the female offender and their sentencer that prison is “quite a good thing for you dear, you will go in there and get better”.
On the Scottish Prison Service’s website it says: “On a basic level, the challenges facing the Prison Service is one of stabilising people in chaos, helping offenders as they arrive in prison, looking after them as well as possible in prison and preparing them for release.” That sounds very reasonable, but what does it mean in reality?
When women come into prison they are often detoxified from their drugs. That takes a couple of weeks and, once they settle down into some, hopefully, more stable balance of less drugs or no drugs, they start looking for things that might help them in prison. In their own perception they are in prison because they have been caught, not to get better. Often the first three months are taken up with coming off drugs, then chasing drugs and then settling down to the fact that this is a prison and they are not in the chaotic framework of being near the edge of life any more. Meanwhile we meet them as near to where they are as possible, in terms of their health problems, housing problems, relationship problems and worklessness although in the Prison Service we tend to have a male perspective on employability. I don’t think many of the women see employment as a goal.
Excuse me, are you saying women don’t see employment as a goal?
Not paid employment, no. I think they see returning to some sort of family status as a goal. It varies, but many women are just trying to conquer their drug habit and get back to where they were in life, or maybe get their children back. Some of them don’t even have that ambition they just want to get their lives back, but often the chaos continues. We take them in, dust them down, clean them up and put them back, exactly into the circumstances they came from. They really ought not to come into prison at all because it’s not good for their survival chances and for their children and family unit basically, prison is tearing a very fragile set of relationships apart. It would be much better if we put effort into looking to improve things in situ, dealing with their offending but also dealing with their problems in their context. Okay, that sounds very sociologically nice and liberal and so on, but we’re not actually succeeding the way we are doing things at the moment. Whatever we are doing, it isn’t working and these women don't stop re-offending.
It seems you are saying exactly the same as the governor and the warden in Cornton Vale. I know you are working within the system, but can you see any ideal, realistic alternatives to prison?
If there was a simple, single answer we would have found it and would be able to describe it. It would involve a set of sea-changes in terms of how we view the context of the offending, but also a set of credible alternatives to prison that have sufficient capacity to survive and thrive. It’s to do with public opinion; it’s to do with media treatment of crime and punishment; it’s to do with political opinion and the courage to look at the evidence, rather than just what the media expect politicians to say; it’s to do with expertise in sentencing and the independence of the judiciary. We are clogging up our prisons with people who shouldn’t be there. We don’t need a debate on the independence of the judiciary, that’s given, everybody respects that, including the offenders. What we do need is a debate on how people are sentenced, having been found guilty. That’s not something sacrosanct, and it should be tailored to the resources available. Constructing a community alternative would be a much cleverer option a set of partnerships between agencies to support somebody with very complex problems. For all sorts of reasons, that’s a much tougher challenge than just putting people in prison.
Recently I went to a “Reducing Re-offending” conference in Holyrood and there were representatives from all kinds of services, including the Scottish Prison Service. They all agreed that they need to get better at working in partnership. The Scottish Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill, made a great speech about how the offenders are part of our communities and should also be part of communities in serving their sentences - low-level offenders obviously.
Effective community sentences are what we need, but we don’t know what’s effective because we haven’t invested in research, and the people who select sentences underrate evidence in relation to studies and statistics. They think that’s just a bit second-class, so we have a problem presenting evidence, rather strangely, to the legal profession and decision-makers in the criminal justice system. We also have a problem presenting evidence to politicians because they want solutions in double-quick time, and not in the time it takes to produce research, which usually arrives at an imperfect answer anyway, such as: “It may be better, it may not, but more research is needed.” There are lots of well-meaning criminal justice agencies who can sign up to partnerships and outputs, but they have very different ideas of what a partnership is. The financial incentives are skewed because the government pays for prisons, whereas community sentencing is by and large a local authority function. This means there’s no incentive to do less prison and more local authority, community-based sentencing, because the money doesn’t flow out of one and into the other. If you took 2,000 people out of prison today, those buildings would still cost the same, minus some consumption expenses. The bricks and mortar, the fixed costs, would be almost unchanged.
More people in prison means poorer physical health, mental health, social health and spiritual wellbeing, the whole gamut of what the WHO [World Health Organisation] defines as “health and wellbeing”. It’s in the interest of a flourishing and successful justice system that public health will benefit: public health is an end point, and a good justice system is a good public health system. People who have committed serious crimes should go to prison but, for people who haven’t, we should think very carefully about the alternatives. What’s in their and their community’s interest? Their community consists of victims, people with an opinion, people who do or don’t feel safe, their families, peers and their children. A lot of children are involved thousands of children in Scotland are affected by prison every year. Why are we damaging their prospects on such a vast scale? The health impact of prison and the justice system are substantial, but the people involved with offending, who need the most help and find it the hardest to secure and accept help, they also have the greatest potential to benefit if we get it right for them.
In Cornton Vale I saw one young woman in a suicide cell, and I’m sure there are more people in danger of killing themselves in prison. It broke my heart, but is it not a good thing they are being looked after this way?
Yes, we are saving tens of lives, in all probability, every year. That’s a massive contribution to young Scottish life, but then we worry when they get out of prison we know people are dying from drug-related deaths after release. I don’t know what women think of when they get out of prison but, obviously, getting back to drug use if they haven’t put it behind them is a big draw. A number of things help them back into that lifestyle: their partner, who is often a drug user, their dealer, their pimp, their family perhaps. It would be nice to think children have a huge influence and that is definitely the case for some women, but not, by any means, all. I think good community services, drugs services and mental health services will be saving significant numbers of lives.
Kenny MacAskill, has suggested “a presumption against sentences of six months or less” while promoting community sentences for low-level offenders. In practical terms, what will this mean?
Sheriffs will have two options: either they will succumb to this trend to put people into a community sentence, or they will just stretch the sentence term to more than six months. We, at the Scottish Prison Service, don’t feel we’re in a position to influence this, which is not to wash our hands of what needs done, but the decisions lie elsewhere. We will deal with women in prison that’s our job, we don’t have a choice. In they come in ever-increasing numbers, and what can you do? You can despair from time to time and you can cope from time to time.
Prison, for the sentencer, is in some ways the easy answer, and the press thinks it’s the easy answer for the offender. I don’t think people realise what the dimensions of loss of liberty really are they are awesome: the structure of your day, things you take for granted as a free person, the little things in life, and there are many, many of them. That is what you are losing.
The country must decide how much it wants to invest in prisons, and realise that it won’t get justice on the cheap if it throws more people into prison. Everything has a consequence, but I think, in the public mind, building prisons is an inconsequential act: it’s pre-paid, it’s in the budget, so let’s not worry about it. Well, you should worry because of the damage you cause by creating a very large prison population which is sawn off from the rest of society. There’s an illusion that prisons have one-way traffic, but they don’t it’s revolving. People don’t stay in prison: they go to prison, serve their sentence, come out and go back in again.
I wonder what your thoughts are on residential rehab? Could people be sentenced to go to rehab?
Yes. There’s a big debate about what is called quasi coercive treatment interventions, health and social care type interventions, which are coercive in the way the court prescribes them, so people don’t have much choice. I’ve got over any ethical problems I had with that: if it’s not prison it’s worth trying, it’s worth the person taking an informed choice. So, to me, residential rehab prescribed as a condition of the court is an allowable, reasonable, proportionate act. It’s broadly recognised in Scotland that we do not have sufficient drug rehabilitation on the residential end, because that’s the expensive end. We have tried to persuade ourselves that lesser measures are sufficient, but we have a population with varied needs and, at some point in people’s drug careers, some of them need residential drug rehab. Now, of course, prison is a very important provider of residential drug rehab.
Except for one major problem, surely? Prison isn’t drug free.
No we think drug free units in prisons are a delusion. We have support areas for people who want to come off drugs, and very severe sanctions, but to call them drug-free units just makes people laugh. They are merely as drug free as we can get them. We must reduce the supply of drugs into prison as much as reasonably possible. You can go to extraordinary lengths which infringe rights and are humiliating for the staff and visitors as well as the prisoners. Reduction in supply, reduction in demand, trying to persuade people that drugs don’t offer a lifestyle that’s going to sustain them and to look elsewhere for fulfilment or the resolution of problems. Of course, that requires insight, motivation, much profound understanding of, not why they are there they are there because they have been caught but what they need to do next.
How do you see the future?
It’s very difficult to be optimistic and it’s quite appalling to think that we should have 70-80 women in prison in Scotland but currently have more than 400. I think we just need to chip away with arguments and influence the public discourse on women’s offending. Talking within this organisation hasn’t got any point to it because we have to take who we are given. Talking with the public, with sentencers, with politicians, may have some capacity for success, although the evidence doesn’t suggest it. It’s a dreadful thing to live in a country that locks up rapidly increasing numbers of women, knowing that we are doing substantial harm and yet feeling relatively powerless to improve things and see a reduction. At the moment, I don’t see a rational way of turning the tide. There needs to be a social movement against imprisonment and we are not there yet…
Eva Merz Interviewed by Jenny Brownrigg
Macintosh Building, The Glasgow School of Art, 23 November 2010
Jenny Brownrigg: Eva, why did you start this project?
Eva Merz: I guess it started in Aberdeen. I spent a lot of time in the streets there when I was working on “Get a Fucking Job” [interview book, published by New Social Art School, April 2006]. I was interviewing street beggars and homeless people, most of whom were addicted to drugs, and some of whom had prison experience. They were mainly male, because the women in the same sort of situation would often be making their money working as prostitutes. Aberdeen is such an affluent city, but it has lots of social problems and huge amounts of drugs. What really got me was that people knew these things were happening, but nobody wanted to speak about it rationally.
While I was working as an artist in residence in Tillydrone, a so-called “regeneration area” in Aberdeen, I became friends with a woman who was a heroin addict and drug dealer. She told me about Cornton Vale and her experience of doing time there. Some time later I was approached by a woman who had seen an article about my work, and she also mentioned Cornton Vale. She had initiated some therapy projects in the prison and knew the governor. She asked what I thought about the prospect of doing an artist residency in the prison and, without thinking, I said: “I’m interested.” She set about arranging a meeting with the prison governor, but it was a couple of months before he had time. Meanwhile I was reading lots and gaining quite a bit of knowledge about prisons and criminal justice. It’s funny because we think we know who is in prison all the crooks, the “bad people”, but actually it’s a lot more complex than that.
When you started this project, perhaps you had a set of expectations for the way it might develop… How did this change as things proceeded?
To my mind, an artist residency would have meant going to live in the prison, and being locked up in there, and that’s exactly what I proposed to the governor. In hindsight, I can see how naïve that was, but at the time I was serious. Essentially, I wanted to make a book of interviews with prisoners and staff, which required permission from an Ethical Board. I had to submit a formal proposal, and I don’t know how many times I amended that proposal. I had four or five meetings with the governor and two meetings with a prison warden. I agreed to do workshops just to get in there, but I couldn’t let go of my initial idea to do interviews. The upshot of all this was that I was told to forget about doing the interviews. It had taken a long time to get to this point and I was frustrated. On reflection, I felt that my objective was to be a mediator between the insiders of the prison and a wider audience. That’s where I position myself as an artist. So I asked the governor if I could interview him.
How long has the whole process taken?
The interviews in this book were conducted in 2009 but, for me, the project started when I first met the Cornton Vale governor in November 2007. During the negotiations for me to enter Cornton Vale and work in there, a BBC film crew was there making the “Girls Behind Bars” documentary. I watched all three episodes at home and felt gutted that I couldn’t get in there myself. That’s why I ended up taking these still photographs directly from the TV screen, and then I manipulated them digitally, so you don’t recognise people’s faces [photos on pages: 6-7, 12-13 and 40-41].
You mention in the book that you worked in a residential drug rehab unit in Norway, which probably led you to this project as well…
I’ve known drug addicts since I was nineteen. I’ve known many people who died, but I’ve also known many who managed to beat their addiction and I really believe that people carry within them the possibility of change. So, yes, the whole idea of prison and rehabilitation is not completely new to me. If I wasn’t an artist I would probably be a social worker or a politician. But I’m an artist… and it just so happens I’m inspired by social injustice. I have opinions on issues and what drives me is frustration and anger. I don’t need to explain to people what’s great art and what’s not, but sometimes I feel like saying: “Come on, get out of your studios, stop worrying about your own selves and start looking around you!” There is so much crap art it might look good, but it’s boring and nobody needs it. I’m happy to call a spade a spade. Whether you like it or not, there’s no bullshit in my work. It’s really honest.
Is this project about more than just women in prison?
What I realised, going through this whole process, is that the project was not so much about people inside the prison it’s about us on the outside and what kind of society we want to live in, which makes it essentially about me. I’m middle-class and well brought up. Chances are I will never go to prison, so I think I’m trying to speak to people who are like me. This book is primarily for the people who couldn’t imagine themselves in prison and who don’t know anything about prisons. Also I’d like to address people who have the view that we should get tougher on crime, to make them understand that things are not that simple.
You mentioned earlier that you see yourself as a mediator. Do you see this as one of the roles a contemporary artist should have in society, finding a way to get the complexities of a given situation into the public domain?
Yes, definitely. Artists reflect society in the sense that they are as varied individually as everybody else. Some might say I work more like a sociologist or a journalist or an anthropologist than an artist; some would maybe question whether what I’m doing is even art, but that really doesn’t matter to me. I call myself an artist because that gives me the freedom to make this kind of work. If you are employed by the prison, the government or any organisation, you can’t do something like this. Within academia there’s a certain pressure to be “objective”, and journalists always have to cover both sides. Only an artist has the freedom to work on any subject, direct the process themselves, say exactly what they want and chose any media they want to say it with. I think it’s a shame artists don’t get out more and engage with society and politics. That’s what I’m trying to do, even on a small scale.
To use one of the recurring questions from your interviews: how do you see the future? And what can this book achieve?
Regarding the book, I hope it’s educational and provides information that makes people see things from a different perspective. Hopefully, it will contribute to a sorely needed public debate. I’ve said many times that I wasn’t so interested in the arts world because my books should reach a much wider audience, but now we are launching the book here at the Art School… that’s really great because, funnily enough, when it comes to my books, I haven’t really spoken directly to the arts audience before. But they need to know as well, of course…
Can you explain a little about the images on the cover of the book?
This work is called “You, Me, Us & Them Compositions” and was made with my friend Zoe Shearer. Last year I was given an exhibition space for a solo show and insisted on making it about women in prison. But it ended up being more about me and my attempts to make a project about women in prison. I wrote to every woman I know friends, family and colleagues and gave them a brief about the conditions for women in prison and in the criminal justice system. I asked them to respond by donating a piece of clothing for an art work that I called “The Human Sculpture”. All in all 80 people sent a piece in the mail, from as far away as Canada, USA, Greece and Finland some people, from Glasgow, came into the studio with whole bags of clothes. From these I made a sculpture in the gallery, which was quite good, but it wasn’t enough. It was as if there was much more energy there, so I stored the clothes in plastic bags and in the summer thought again about what I could do. Zoe came up with the idea of putting the clothes together and creating new “looks”.
We spent three days in the studio, just going crazy, and had a lot of fun. Sometimes you just have to do things because it’s great doing them. I ended up putting each outfit on a mannequin and photographing them, still without knowing what it was for. An artist friend saw the photographs and said these outfits were totally middle-class, and definitely not the types she would imagine in prison. And I thought: “Exactly, that’s the point it’s not about them, it’s about us.” The faceless mannequin is so anonymous it could be anybody. And then there’s the idea of women being into fashion and shopping and all that. It’s playing on different sorts of stereotypes without really being any of them.
It’s quite interesting with the book that you have put “us” on the outside and “them” on the inside. The book seems to me to be a very good vehicle for saying that it’s about the relations we are all connected.
Yeah I think that’s where the sensitivity is. When you deal with a subject or people, who are in a bad position you have to be really careful to not use these people’s miserable life situations just to further your own career. There’s a fine balance between caring about people and exploiting them. It’s difficult to get that right and I think that I’m so scared of getting it wrong that I underplay things sometimes. You see work, especially with photography, where artists have gone somewhere, got the pictures, brought them back and shown them to the public. That’s problematic because it often nourishes stereotypes and stigma, and then you miss the chance of going deeper into the issues. I want the audience to not just see the surface but to learn something new. It’s so much harder to sell because people want to be shocked, they want sensation and I’m not about that...
All interviews copyright © Eva Merz, 2011