A toxic mix of degradation and brutal traditions

Comment: Mark Leech
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Walking into the reception area of Glasgow's superjail is like stepping back in time a good 200 years.

Walking into the reception area of Glasgow's superjail is like stepping back in time a good 200 years.

I remember well my first night, locked in a reception "dog box" that is no more than three feet square for three hours and being handed the cold congealed "mystery bowl" of stew in which the plastic spoon stood vertical. All this served only to drive home the message that Barlinnie was a law unto itself.

Barlinnie ranks in the top five worst prisons in the UK, and I say that not only as editor of the principal annual reference book on the penal system but, more importantly, as someone who had the misfortune to experience its archaic brutalising horrors.

So little has changed that a recent report by the chief inspector of Scottish prisons felt that the Victorians who built the prison would recognise much of it today. The degrading paint-flaking cell walls still retain the graffiti and food marks I witnessed there eight years ago.

The same stained mattresses still rest upon the same dilapidated beds, amid the stench of human urine and parcels of excrement that litter the prison yards.

The lack of facilities, poor work opportunities, overcrowding, cold meals, creaking laundry and the use of filthy, encrusted chamber pots combine to make a prison that should cause all decent-minded Scots to hang their heads in shame.

Barlinnie has an appalling heroin problem, though the mandatory drug-testing figures show that only 20 per cent of prisoners test positive for drugs. The chief inspector of prisons declared that this was far lower than he had expected to find. There is, I believe, a simple explanation; drug-free urine has been a saleable commodity in Barlinnie for donkey's years.

The staff at Barlinnie have run the prison with an iron hand since the riots of a decade ago. The level of staff violence to prisoners I have witnessed - and was a victim of myself more than once - is higher than at any prison in Scotland and probably the UK as a whole. Being locked up for 23 hours a day in filthy, vermin-infested conditions has made for a prison that should not just be closed, but demolished.

Barlinnie is a penal dinosaur, struggling to cope with numbers it was never designed to house, in an age it was never expected to see, with a toxic combination of appalling conditions and brutal traditions that makes its place in the modern prison system incongruous, to say the least. I for one will toast its closure with pleasure.

* Mark Leech is a former Barlinnie inmate who served eight years for armed robbery - two in Barlinnie - and is now chief executive of the national ex-offenders' charity Unlock.