Prisoners are on the phone at Barlinnie, Greenock, Cornton Vale and all Scottish jails.
By Bill Heaney
“Within that overall challenge, there is a particular challenge in our prisons. I think that we all understand the different factors that are at play. I would hope that members from across the chamber could come together to welcome the ways in which we are seeking to change past practice and to recognise where perhaps we should have done things differently in the past and should do them differently in the future. I hope that there is an appetite to build consensus on that.
“To that end, as I have said before, I am open to suggestions. That, of course, includes, as I have said many times in the chamber, consideration of the Conservatives’ wider proposals in their proposal for draft legislation. I continue to be open minded, and we will continue to seek to do the right things, backed by investment, to turn the situation around.”
But Mr Ross was far from content with her answer. He said: “The First Minister has said that she has been ‘very open’ about the issue—and she has. She has accepted that she took her eye off the ball with Scotland’s drug deaths. However, the eye is still off the ball.”
He slated the drugs Minister Angela Constance: “For months, we have highlighted the issue of drugs reaching prisoners through mail, and we offered a solution. Russell Findlay raised the issue with the Government five times over two months.
“When he raised it in the chamber with the Minister for Drugs Policy, Angela Constance—this is a direct quote, and I am reminded that the First Minister has just said that we need to work together and be consensual—the First Minister’s own drugs minister said: ‘Mr Findlay is a big boy now, and does not need his mammy to hold his hand; I am sure that he will be able to address any outstanding matters that he has with the Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Veterans’.
“This issue is about drug overdoses and people dying. Was that response worthy of a Government minister?”
The First Minister: batted that away: “On such a serious issue, although I am absolutely sure that members of parties across the chamber will not agree with everything that Angela Constance or I say on the issue, I hope that they would agree that Angela Constance in particular has not just been open to different approaches but has already in her tenure as drugs minister taken forward many different approaches to tackling this challenge.”
In regard to the situation in prisons, she added: “On the specific point about the situation in prisons and, in particular, the issue of the photocopying of prisoner mail, the Scottish Prison Service has, rightly, taken time to consider the range of very serious operational and legal considerations.
Drugs Minister Angela Constance, Nicola Sturgeon, Douglas Ross and Justice Secretary Keith Brown clashed over drugs issues at Holyrood.
“That includes taking into account prisoners’ rights, which are often determined through court judgments, on the handling of their correspondence. That is a fundamental consideration. As the Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Veterans outlined to the Parliament on Tuesday, the Prison Service will, after detailed operational consideration, be implementing that change.
“I recognise that, particularly on such important issues, everybody wants the Government to operate and move with speed, and I share that view. However, when we are dealing with such serious issues, it is important that we take the time to consider all the implications, particularly when those implications involve legal considerations. That is what has happened, and I hope that members from across the chamber, who have been calling for the measure, will welcome the progress that we are able to make.”
Douglas Ross replied: “It is not just Angela Constance. Another Government minister, Lorna Slater, recently said that drugs are ‘not inherently dangerous’, and, this week, the Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Veterans, Keith Brown, dismissed another serious concern that we raised.
“I have here the standard operating procedure to which prison officers have to work. It says that prisoners have the option to have items that are contaminated with drugs safely stored and returned to them on their release.
“Prison officers are telling us that they are having to hand drugs back to prisoners as they leave. The First Minister’s Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Veterans refused to give a serious response to that issue. Will she commit to ending the practice immediately?
The First Minister assured the Tory leader: “In the spirit of openness, I will certainly look at that. Prisoners have rights, which are often upheld in courts of law, and we have to consider the issues carefully in ensuring that we address them properly.
“There is a deeper issue that, in the spirit of openness and sincerity about trying to find the solutions to the matter, I ask Douglas Ross to consider. I accept his sincerity on the issue without doubt or equivocation, but it is too easy for all of us in the Parliament to oversimplify some of the issues in quoting ministers and to forget to understand the nuances of the matter.
“The factors behind the drugs crisis are complex. We all understand that, so let us not oversimplify or take quotes out of context. Let us focus on the substance of solutions, as Douglas Ross has been doing, and try to find maximum consensus.
“I will go away and look in detail at the particular issue that he raised. If we consider that a change is necessary, appropriate and possible to make, I undertake that we will give it due and serious consideration.”
Mr Ross was still not content and pursued the matter of prisoners being give mobile telephones – “I am not taking quotes out of context. I have reminded the First Minister of the response that we have had from three members of her Government.
“The Government must finally start treating the crisis with the urgency that it deserves. The Prison Officers Association Scotland has told us that it has been overwhelmed with unprecedented levels of drug abuse in our prisons.
“Her Government is making it harder for them to do their job. It gave prisoners £2.7 million-worth of unhackable phones that were then hacked and used to deal drugs.
“Scottish Prison Service documents show that there have been more than 2,200 incidents of prisoners misusing those devices. Given the obvious abuse of those phones for criminal activity, will she now commit to removing the phones that have been hacked from Scotland’s prisons?”
However the First Minister went on to confirm that public concerns in regard to prisoners and telephones was out there in communities.
She said: “We are treating the issue seriously and with urgency. Sometimes, there are complex situations and issues that have to be properly considered and thought through. That is what we will do, because—to be frank—we do not progress anything if we fail to do that.
“On the issue of mobile phones, it is important to remember the context. In the absence of in-person contact with loved ones over a sustained period during, in particular, the early stages of the pandemic, the provision of mobile phones has been vital in addressing the negative impact of Covid in our prisons not only for prisoners but for staff and families—in particular, children who are impacted by the imprisonment of parents.
“The vast majority of the more than 10,000 phones that were issued were used entirely as intended. The breaches of the rules are taken very seriously by the Prison Service.
“Robust monitoring, which detected where there were breaches, detected that a small minority of handsets—around 7 per cent—had been tampered with. That is not acceptable, but the robust monitoring detected it and allowed steps to be taken to prevent it in the future.
“The issues are serious, and they are often complex. I hope that all of us will treat them in that way as we face up to and address drugs deaths in society generally and in our prisons, in particular.”