Some time ago Glasgow Chamber of Commerce organised one of their Behind the Scene Events this time to Barlinnie Prison. I suppose most of us have little idea what to expect in visiting a prison but I left with ambivalent feelings which were pretty strong.
Barlinnie is of course a large local prison receiving prisoners from the courts in the west of Scotland. Very few prisons have gained such notoriety as Barlinnie has, in its long and murky history. It is one of the oldest functioning prisons in the world meaning the longstanding Victorian building has been holding ne’r’do’wells for more than 132 years. In January 1987 a riot in the prison made worldwide news with five staff being taken hostage but eventually being let go with little or no harm done. It is also famous for its “Special Unit” which opened in 1973 and closed in 1993 where some of the most violent offenders were offered opportunities to attempt to rehabilitate themselves. Not everyone went to Barlinnie to serve a prison sentence and between the years of 1947 and 1960 10 people were hanged including one of Scotland’s most notorious serial killers Peter Manuel. In 2002 one of the world’s most revered leaders Nelson Mandela visited Barlinnie to speak to Abdelbaset al-Megrahi to help to secure his release.
But here we were on a wintry morning having signed in, handed in our mobile phones, handbags etc and going through the equivalent of airport security to go into the prison for our guided tour which included cells, food hall, medical facilities, a testosterone filled gym, hairdressers, kitchens, work training areas , gardens and meeting prisoners.
It was like entering a micro society of males. So it probably is no surprise that prisons face the same challenges in terms of demographic population as society in general with the prison population becoming increasingly elderly. In a recent article published in the Sunday Herald it was highlighted that offenders aged over 65 in custody had increased from 88 in 2010/11 to 152 by October 2016,with those aged 60-64 increasing from 92 to 136 and those aged 55-59 growing from 150 to 265.
As the article states “All of this is at a time when the prison population showed a slight decline, mainly due to a reduction in young offender numbers. As the years pass, it will no longer be troubled young men but convicted old men who’ll pose more issues for our prisons”
We cannot bury our heads in the sand and ignore the fact that there is an increase in offenders in prison for crimes of historical sexual abuse and in the light of the recent scandals in football there may be much more to be exposed of a very dark past in our society. Given the judgemental attitudes in prison life, protecting offenders due to the nature of their crime where angry young men would love to punish the dirty old men as they would see it, can be extremely challenging let alone dealing with the specialist care frail and elderly prisoners may need. Some young prisoners will have been victims of abuse, with a culture of denial hiding it and for many their pain is articulated in anti-social behaviour.
When I left the prison I felt saddened with a sense of hopelessness. Prisons reflect society in many ways not just as regards age. It is I believe time to look anew at our prisons for young as well as old.
This opinion is entirely my own.