I share the disappointment of the local community and all those professionally involved with Noranside Open Prison.
The news that it is to close over the next few months is a massive blow to those who have put an enormous amount of effort into making it such an effective rehabilitation establishment.
When John Swinney (then the local MSP, prior to May’s boundary changes), Mike Weir MP and I met with the Scottish Prison Service management in January we emphasised our appreciation of the contribution which the prison had made and the good relations which were enjoyed with the local community.
John Ewing, the SPS chief executive, shared our appreciation and stated that the proposed closure in no way reflected any concern about the work the staff carried out.
He stated that the proposal was simply a pragmatic response to the fact that the SPS had for some time been unable to utilise the capacity of the open estate, and that they have an obligation to operate within the allocated financial budget, and deliver value for money for the taxpayer.
Fewer prisoners are now eligible for transfer to open conditions as a result of the Robert Foye case and the SPS believe that they can accommodate all those eligible at Castle Huntly. (Incidentally the stricter criteria have substantially reduced the number of absconds from 79 in 2006/07 to just 10 in 2009/10.)
One of the issues we raised was that a substantial part of Castle Huntly’s capacity is in double cells which may in time become subject to legal challenge.
Concern has also been expressed about having only one site as it is then impossible to separate prisoners completely.
SPS do not believe either of these is a problem. The Independent Living Unit at Noranside has also been regarded as exemplary; I remain concerned that this will be difficult to replicate at Castle Huntly.
Noranside has been an outstanding success both in terms of integrating with the local community and as part of the prison rehabilitation process.
Staff there can be very proud of their record and are naturally angry at the news.
A policy of no enforced redundancy is very welcome but is no substitute for what they see as complete lack of recognition of the site’s past and potential contribution.
I am arranging a meeting with representatives of the prison officers as soon as practicable, but this will be about facilitating the transition as I do not believe the SPS will now change their mind.
A continuing concern is the impact of the closure on the local community.
Prisoners have been involved in many activities by way of work experience.
SPS management confirmed that they intend to continue work placements across the Angus area, but one has to doubt that prisoners will be transported any further than is necessary so there will surely be a loss here. Savings of £2.5million in a full year are also projected as a result of the closure.
Given that these sums are either staff salaries or for services provided to the site by the local community it is clear that there is going to be a significant economic impact on the immediate area.
I have already written to Fergus Ewing, the minister for Energy Enterprise and Tourism, asking for a meeting to discuss the ways in which this economic impact can be reduced.
Like everyone else I am struggling to see an economically viable use for the site.
At the end of the day this is a decision which directly flows from the reduced budget made available from Westminster.
In the eyes of the Scottish Prison Service it is a logical step in the process of balancing their budget.
To anyone involved with the operation of the prison over the years it will feel like a kick in the teeth.
MSP Angus North and Mearns.