While we may be rubbish at many things, one league table where the UK triumphs is in locking people up, with one of the highest rates of incarceration in western Europe. Despite this, prisons are usually pretty far down the political agenda, only cropping up when our politicians bravely defy attempts by bleeding-heart Eurocrats to give inmates things like the right to vote. With prisoners themselves having no say in policy making and attempts to pursue a more rehabilitative approach to offenders enough to send the Daily Mail into reactionary spasms about "holiday camp" jails, it's hardly surprising that most politicians steer clear of the subject.
So few people, least of all the SNP Government, were expecting prisons to become one of the most contentious issues in post-referendum Scottish politics. But in the past few weeks, the Scottish Government's plans to construct a new "super jail" for women prisoners have come to dominate the news agenda north of the border, with opposition flaring. Awkwardly for SNP ministers, one of the most vocal opponents of the prison plan has been the non-party Women for Independence group, which they've spent the last two years sharing platforms with.
What's the big issue here? Presently, Scotland only has one women's prison, Cornton Vale in Stirling, which holds around 280 inmates. The jail has long been the subject of controversy, particularly following a spate of suicides in the mid 1990s, and there's a consensus that it needs to be replaced. Statistics from the jail make for depressing reading, with two-thirds of inmates on suicide watch, 80 percent suffering mental health problems and 71 percent having no qualifications.
There are now slightly creepy "projections" showing that there will be lots of new criminals, necessitating a big new jail. Plans are now at an advanced stage for a new £60 million, 350 space prison, to be sited near Greenock on the west coast. This is now provoking fury from campaigners.
When Women for Independence became aware of the proposals in December, they rapidly put together a plan to oppose them and propelled the issue into mainstream debate. They have pointed to the recommendations made by the Scottish Government's own commission on female offending a couple of years ago, which as well as calling for the demolition of Cornton Vale, proposed a small, specialist unit to house those on long-term sentences. Others would be placed near to their own communities. Going further still, with 75 percent of women prisoners serving sentences of six months or less, campaigners raised the question of whether many of them should be there at all. A tiny proportion of female prisoners – around 6 percent – are inside for violent offences.
It didn't take long for the same guy who originally approved the plans for the new prison, former Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill, to suddenly decide that it wasn't such a good idea after all, essentially acknowledging that prisons don't really work in terms of reintegrating prisoners to society. Writing in The National – the new pro independence newspaper – in December, he wrote that they "more often harm than help" offenders, that increasing capacity would "embed… unacceptably high prison numbers" and called for his successor to have the "political will" to rethink the plans. Given that he'd been Justice Minister until just a few weeks before, it's slightly strange that he didn't have the "political will" to do so himself. It's a bit like the ever increasing number of former world leaders who make incredible about-turns in their attitude to drug legalisation the second they're no longer in a position of power.
Women for Independence are optimistic that the current plans – or at least the capacity of the new prison – will be amended, with an understanding that the new Justice Minister Michael Matheson has called them back in for review. However, the group's Maggie Mellon told me she's wary of the issue becoming a party political football. Unfortunately for them, it does now seem to be heading that way, with Scottish Labour backing the cancellation of the prison, probably as part of their strategy to win over left-leaning Yes voters. Although Mellon is cautiously welcoming of the view Labour have taken towards the jail, she points out that prison numbers have spiralled under Labour governments in the past. Jim Murphy's attempt to make the issue about "mummies and kiddies" also comes in for criticism. He points out that when men go to prison, their children are likely to stay with their mothers, but when women go to prison, fathers are less likely to step in. But Maggie isn't too keen on this line of argument: "We want to reduce prison numbers across the board, for both men and women. We've never said anything else", she said.
Scottish Labour's ongoing efforts to be everything to everyone, meanwhile, mean that while issuing pronouncements about the SNP locking up mums on one hand, they're happy to appease the likes of the Daily Mail with pledges to end "soft-touch justice" and make "time mean time" on the other. The press in the deprived Greenock area – which is set to be the site of the new women's prison – are also reporting that the party are saying they'll just build a new men's prison there instead. Such is the baffling reality of post-indyref Scottish Labour, where nothing is quite as it seems.
The independence campaign saw, particularly from the Yes side of the debate, a lot of emphasis on Scotland's apparently intrinsic aspiration to be a Nordic-style social democracy – the kind of place where prisons really are like rehabilitative holiday camps – if it just wasn't for the nasty Tories at Westminster holding the nation back. The extent to which the SNP can live up to their much vaunted progressive aspirations, on a matter in which they have full devolved powers, is now being tested to the limit. There's been a lot of chatter about Scotland being able to set an example to the rest of the UK when it comes to social justice issues. The country now has a chance to show that there is a workable alternative to locking women up – it's just a pesky matter of political will for it to do so.