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Meeting date: Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Criminal Justice Committee 19 January 2022

Agenda: Subordinate Legislation, Pre-Budget Report (Scottish Government Response)


Subordinate Legislation

Prisons and Young Offenders Institutions (Scotland) Amendment Rules 2021 (SSI 2021/446)

Welcome to the second meeting in 2022 of the Criminal Justice Committee. I have received no apologies this morning. I ask members to ensure that mobile phones are switched to silent and that they wait for the sound engineer to switch on their microphone before speaking.

Our first agenda item is consideration of the Prisons and Young Offenders Institutions (Scotland) Amendment Rules 2021. I refer members to paper 1. Last week, we took evidence on the regulations from the Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Veterans and from the Scottish Prison Service. I think that we all recognise the balance that needs to be struck between a desire to prevent drugs from entering our prisons and, at the same time, protecting the rights of prisoners.

Before I ask whether the committee wishes to report any conclusions to the Parliament, I invite comments from members. Any member who wishes to make a comment should either raise their hand or type an R in the chat function.

It is worth revisiting quickly what has brought us to this situation. Multiple ambulances were getting called out to prisons at a time when the national health service was under severe strain, particularly in Lanarkshire, where the health board was at level black. Prisoners who had overdosed were treated in intensive care beds in a hospital that was under severe pressure because of Covid. At that point, the Scottish Ambulance Service was subject to assistance by the military.

Many prison officers who had been talking about the drugs problem for many months and years said that the level of drugs was the highest that they had seen in decades. It is worth reiterating that there was a vital need to do something about prisoners’ mail, given that that was the main source of drugs into prisons, so the move was necessary and should be welcomed.

There are issues relating to prisoners’ rights, but we also need to bear in mind the rights of prison officers, the environment in which they work and, indeed, that the majority of prisoners want to be in an environment that is not awash with drugs, so that they are not susceptible to falling victim to that culture.

The regulations are an important and positive development.

I largely agree with Russell Findlay’s comments. We need to take proportionate action to tackle the scourge of drugs in our prisons, and I am content that the regulations are necessary.

As other members did, I asked the cabinet secretary and the chief executive of the Scottish Prison Service, Teresa Medhurst, for reassurances in relation to prisoners who might innocently get caught up in what is happening. I felt satisfied that prisoners would be present if any suspect mail went through the process. That gave me some reassurance.

I think that it is useful to put on the record that the Miscarriages of Justice Organisation has written to the committee to express concerns. It acts on behalf of convicted prisoners when it feels that there is a credible case that there has been a miscarriage of justice. It is important to note that correspondence.

I for one will be listening out and monitoring the impact of the regulations, to make sure that they are proportionate.

One of the concerns that Families Outside raises is that families of prisoners might stop writing to them because of a fear that something untoward would happen to their innocently sent correspondence, such as birthday cards.

For those reasons, I think that the committee should keep an eye on the regulations.

I will bring in Jamie Greene, who will be followed by Katy Clark.

I have three brief points to make, the first of which is in relation to the evidence that we took last week. I felt that, at the end of that session, we were none the wiser as to the volume of mail that is being intercepted. A number of points that were raised, which are primarily around the process of mail interception, would merit being followed up, perhaps in writing, with the Scottish Prison Service or the Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Veterans.

I think that there might have been some miscommunication to or confusion in the wider public sphere around what mail is being stopped and not passed to prisoners, what mail is being photocopied and what mail is or is not being read. The same applies to the process, where that takes place and who does that.

Having transparency on that issue would perhaps help and offer reassurance to the families of those in prison, as well as those who might not be fully aware of what the Scottish statutory instrument means and does in real life.

I appreciate that there could be operational reasons why some information might be sensitive to share in public, which I think that the cabinet secretary hinted at last week. I am content with that if that were to be the case, and I understand the reasons for it, but perhaps that information could be shared confidentially with committee members, as is the norm with such information.

My second point is an issue that I raised last week. It is not just physical mail, including cards, that is soaked in illicit substances. We know that items are brought into prison in other ways. Now that serious organised criminal gangs can no longer rely on traditional forms of smuggling drugs into prison via paper, how else will the drugs get in? It would be naive to think that that would simply stop altogether.

We know that, for example, items of clothing or other parcels that have been sent to prisoners have been pre-soaked in drugs in the past. We also know that we are starting to see a resurgence in methods—the old-fashioned ways, if you like—of getting illicit substances over the perimeter fence. I am keen for the Government and the SPS to keep us posted on that.

My final point is an issue that I tried to raise last week but was unable to because we ran out of time. It relates to digital communication and what alternatives are being offered, such as email systems. I do not mean mobile telephony; I am talking about fixed devices or other forms of electronic communication, which allow families to privately, directly, confidentially, quickly and easily communicate with their loved ones in prisons. We did not get a chance to talk about that in great detail. I would appreciate getting an update on those issues, too.

Thank you very much, Jamie—that is helpful.

[Inaudible.]—which is very sad. However, it is important that the measures are implemented sympathetically, particularly in relation to items of sentimental value. I think that that is a matter on which the committee would want to be kept advised, to satisfy itself that the regulations are being implemented in a way that is sympathetic to individuals who are incarcerated and cut off from their families.

The contacts from families, particularly from children, are incredibly important to that individual. The committee is very concerned about that aspect, so we would want to be kept closely advised on how the measures are being implemented. In particular, we would like to be informed if there were problems and the measures were not working in the way that we understood that they would work.

The committee will be monitoring that issue. We had a full discussion last week. Privately, all committee members expressed concerns about whether the measures would be implemented in that way, as we would expect.

More generally, I think that the committee feels that it needs more information on the scale of drugs in prisons. I hope that, over the coming period, that will be shared with us, along with information about how the regulations will be implemented.

As has been said, mail is only one route that is being used to bring drugs into prison. The problem is a far larger one than that of mail. The committee wants to hear more on that, and expects the Scottish Government and the Scottish Prison Service to provide information to us on that in the coming period.

Finally, I will hand over to Fulton McGregor, after which I will make a few comments.

I broadly agree with what others members have said. Last week’s evidence session was really useful. It is good to hear that the measures have come in, and there seems to be initial evidence of early success.

We all want to ensure that drugs do not get into prisons. Russell Findlay articulated earlier the consequences of drugs getting into prison not only for the individuals in prison, but for the health service at this time. If a measure is seen to be making progress in that area, it is incumbent on us to support it.

I, too, had concerns about the regulations. I probably had more concerns before last week’s evidence session, but I felt reassured listening to the cabinet secretary and Teresa Medhurst’s comments about how some of the mail would be dealt with. The Scottish Prison Service gave quite a clear indication that private mail cannot be read as such and that safeguards are in place.

Nonetheless, we are early on in the process. The regulations are probably broad enough to allow for the measures to be implemented in different ways across the sector. For that reason, I would quite like to review the regulations, too.

I am very happy to support the regulations at this point, as they seem to be making a difference.

I thank all members for their comments, which are balanced, measured and set out our thoughts on the evidence that we have heard and on some of the aspects of the SSI that we would like to monitor and follow-up.

As Russell Findlay alluded to, we need to look at the measures from the perspective of prisoners and prison staff. I was fairly reassured by the evidence that we heard last week, given that the process had been introduced in relatively quick time. However, I feel that we would benefit from getting more information on the practicalities of the process of monitoring and testing mail. It all comes down to ensuring that the practice of monitoring mail that prison officers will be involved in is proportionate.

I highlight that we as a committee have written to the Scottish Prison Service and Police Scotland to seek information on how they respond when psychoactive substances are found. We have also written to the cabinet secretary with additional questions about issues that we identified at last week’s session.

I completely agree with Katy Clark’s comment about the sentimental value of correspondence and the need for careful consideration of how that is handled and managed.

Jamie Greene made a relevant point about other correspondence and communication options. I think that we included some questions on that in some of our follow-up letters. I am more than happy for us to publish our responses. I also note that we will monitor and review the matter going forward.

On that basis, and the basis of members’ comments, are we content that we have no further recommendations to make on the SSI and the evidence that we have heard?

I see that we are agreed. Perfect.

Before we move on, I thank everyone who contributed to our evidence session with written submissions: the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research, Families Outside, and, as Pauline McNeill alluded to, the Miscarriages of Justice Organisation, for their submissions. They were helpful to us so we appreciate their support in that.