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28 April 2015

Time Flies

Anniversaries can be full of joy – births, weddings, and happy times, but they can also mark terrible atrocities, accidents and days that forever remain in the memory as a sobering reminder of what can go wrong. Over the past few weeks, a number of significant anniversaries have come to my attention.

When my grandfather was born, the US President of the day was Abraham Lincoln.

After only four years since he took office in March 1861, the 16th President of the United States was assassinated on April 15, 1865 at the theatre. This month marks the 150th anniversary of his death.

His presidency reigned over a vital period in US history – the Civil War – where he became famous for abolishing slavery, strengthening the federal government and modernising the economy through banks, tariffs and railroads.

As an astute political operator, Lincoln demonstrated his oratory skill to unite the feuding states. The now famous Gettysburg Address of 1863 – a mere 273 words - outlined the principles of nationalism, republicanism, equal rights, liberty and democracy which remain part of the political rhetoric in the US today. Lincoln is now considered among the greatest of US Presidents.

As with Lincoln, anniversaries can have their ties to political change. Fifty years ago this month in 1960, students in South Korea held a nationwide pro-democracy protest against President Syngman Rhee, which eventually forced him to resign. The ‘April Revolution’ was led by labour and student groups and succeeded in overthrowing the autocratic First Republic of South Korea.

Fast forward to even more recently, and the end of this month marks the 29th anniversary of the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine – the world’s worst nuclear accident.

from Wikipedia
In April 1986, one of the four nuclear reactors at the Chernobyl power station exploded killing two plant workers on the night of the accident, and 28 within a few weeks, following acute radiation poisoning.

It was decided that the incident was caused by a flawed Soviet reactor design, coupled with serious mistakes made by the plant operators. It was considered to be a direct consequence of Cold War isolation and the resulting lack of any safety culture.

Since the disaster, the safety of all Soviet-designed reactors has improved considerably, largely due to increased working between East and West since 1989 which has improved safety standards.

Safety was also the lesson learned 103 years ago in April when the passenger liner RMS Titanic sank around two hours and 40 minutes after colliding with an iceberg, killing more than 1500 people. Public inquiries in Britain and the US that followed the disaster led to major improvements in maritime safety and in 1914, the start of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) which still governs maritime safety today.

History can be made at any time, and with the General Election of 2015 just around the corner we’ll have to wait to see how it is remembered.

14 April 2015

Peterhead leads the way in prison reform

Just before Easter, I took part in a debate on the Prisoner (Scotland) Bill – something that is very relevant to Banffshire and Buchan Coast one year on from the addition of HMP Grampian to the criminal justice system.

To give a bit of background – the proposed Bill seeks to end the automatic release of long-term prisoners after two thirds of their sentences. Automatic early release for prisoners including sex offenders initially those sentenced to four years or more, and those that have a sentence of 10 years or more would end, and a period of supervision would be put in place for long-term prisoners leaving custody.

Prison is only effective as a means of punishment due to the enforced loss of liberty, but it is the inclusion of rehabilitation that will reduce the chances of a prisoner re-offending. For rehabilitation to be effective, it is important that those who return to ordinary life receive the help that they need and the opportunity to turn their lives around.

The Bill would allow the Scottish Prison Service to release sentenced prisoners up to two days early where required if this will help with reintegration into everyday life.

Every year, thousands of prisoners in Scotland are released into the community with nowhere to live, some suffering from serious psychological issues and others lacking the social skills to move them forward. These are the problems that the Scottish Government wants to address and one in which I feel is key to the work of the justice system.

The new prisoner release arrangements would allow more targeted access to health, housing and services to help with rehabilitation, and back into the workplace.

HMP and YOI Grampian are leading by example. In January I was delighted when the local prison became the base for a ground breaking project that will go a long way to helping prisoners once they are released back into the community. Significant investment is being made in rehabilitation within the Peterhead prison. In particular prisoners will come out with improved literacy and verbal skills which will equip them for employment in any one of a range of jobs.

Guaranteed period of supervision would be put in place for prisoners guilty of serious offences coming out of custody into the community.

Every prisoner serving a sentence of four years or more will remain in jail for much longer than is currently the case if that is deemed necessary by the Parole Board.

Rehabilitation of prisoners in this country needs better organisation and better resourcing. Almost three-quarters of those in prison have mental health problems and almost two-thirds have drug problems. These do not go away when they are released.

What this Bill provides is better opportunity for those that have served their time, giving them the chance to redeem themselves and fully contribute to society. State of the art prisons are one thing but the care that follows a custodial sentence is just as important, and can be crucial in producing long term life changing results.

Across Scotland, there are 1,000 police officers on our streets and recorded crime is at its lowest level in 40 years. While this should be welcomed, we must make sure that we have not given up on those already in our prisons.

Stewart Stevenson
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