I was in prison and you saw the chance for a cheap story (a reprise)

A couple of years ago I criticised a shoddy article that the Dundee Courier carried about prison meals over Christmas. There does seem to be a pattern of papers printing mean and graceless articles at this time of year, the very time when we should be celebrating the good news of Jesus and goodwill to all men. Sadly some newspapers think it’s a good time to stir up resentment and moaning.

The Daily Record was at it yesterday with an article suggesting that large sums of money are being wasted on Scottish Prison Service (SPS) chaplains, and that prisoners are “milking the system”.

There are any number of criticisms that could be made of the article. It misrepresents the role of the chaplains, and the most powerful counter-argument would simply be a full explanation of the good that these chaplains do. I’ll leave that to someone better qualified to tell that story. The article assumes, ridiculously, that the only two reasons why prisoners might meet chaplains is because they have had a religious awakening or they are milking the system. The Record ignores the valuable support that chaplains provide to prison staff, who are doing an extremely tough and stressful job. The story also tucks away at the end an explanation of the figures for open prisons that undermines the assertions about their costs earlier in the article.

However, what struck me, as someone with professional experience in teasing out useful information and insights from contradictory, confused and biased narratives, was the lack of context to the figures. Governments inevitably deal with huge sums of money, so anything written about them will have VERY BIG NUMBERS. Without context VERY BIG NUMBERS can look seriously impressive, but they are as meaningless as simply capitalising words for dramatic effect, as I just did. The Record’s article would be a good case study for journalism students who should be asked to analyse it along with the latest annual report and accounts for the SPS (PDF, opens in a new tab).

Here are a few facts gleaned quickly and easily from the report, which is publicly available, even to Daily Record journalists.

  1. The chaplaincy costs are 0.7% of the SPS’s expenditure. So where’s the evidence that this diverts money from supposedly more valuable work? The next point suggests that it doesn’t.

  2. The cost of the chaplaincy service is 7% of the SPS’s underspend last year, i.e. the SPS spent £33 million less than its budget allowed for. Suddenly £2.4 million spent on chaplaincy services doesn’t seem hugely significant. By the way, I’m happy to acknowledge that budgeting for a prison service must be extremely difficult. Prisons have to take whatever prisoners the courts send them. They have no control over that.

  3. Wages paid to prisoners came in at 30% more than the cost of chaplaincy. Are prisoners coining it in? Are they milking the system by working? I doubt it. The average weekly wage of a prisoner in Scotland last year was £7.84, only 64p more than the hourly minimum wage. Chaplaincy services cost 86p a day per prisoner. Meanwhile, incidentally, prisoner canteens (which cover additional services like access to TVs) take back an average of £1.57 a day from each prisoner. Are you still worked up about the cost of chaplains?

Putting a little context around the Record’s figures prompts the response; so what? What reason is there to believe the SPS and prisons could be improved by eliminating such a tiny proportion of its expenditure – and losing all the proven benefits of the chaplains? If the Daily Record really believes that then they should put their figures in context and argue that the costs are not justified by the great benefits of the chaplains to the prisons, staff, prisoners and families, and through them to society at large. In the absence of any intelligent analysis by the Record it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this is just another mean spirited, cynical attack on an easy target by a paper that seems indifferent to the consequences.

Looking back at the article I wrote two years ago I think my conclusion then is equally relevant now. I still stand by every word. Happy Christmas!

These articles are particularly disappointing at Christmas. This is the time of year when we are reminded of the wonderful gift that we all received but which we don’t deserve; the love of God shown in Jesus, who came to save us all from our failures and failings. Surely as a society we should recognise the humanity of all people, those in prison or not in prison, and allow prisons to mark this event as much as possible, like the rest of us do.

What a pity that a paper like the Courier [or the Daily Record] can’t run a piece about the wonderful work that prison officers, chaplains, medical professionals and other staff do over Christmas to meet the needs of people who find themselves in prison. In Jesus’s words, “I was in prison and you came to visit me”, Matthew 25 v 36. Wouldn’t that have been a more appropriate, and inspirational, message for Christmas?

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2 thoughts on “I was in prison and you saw the chance for a cheap story (a reprise)

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