Independent Prison Monitoring in Scotland: 1 year on

Independent Prison Monitoring in Scotland: 1 year on

On 31 August 2016, Independent Prison Monitoring in Scotland will mark its first full year of operation.  The new system brings prison inspection and monitoring together within HM Inspectorate of Prisons for Scotland (HMIPS) with a focus on supporting continuous improvement in Scotland’s prisons.


The introduction of the new system was preceded by a lengthy and often fraught process of consultation and review of the Prison Visiting Committee scheme.  The first statement of intent around changing the 130 year old system for monitoring prisons in Scotland came in 2005, and there were no fewer than 5 reports, consultations and reviews in advance of the Public Services Reform (Inspection and Monitoring of Prisons) (Scotland) Order 2015, which brought the new system into being.  This period also saw the UK commit to the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment (2002) and its Optional Protocol (OPCAT), introducing the need for a monitoring system in Scotland that met the requirements of the new National Preventive Mechanism in terms of independence.

Even as the new system entered into legislation some concerns remained amongst key stakeholders about the introduction of the new system.  For this reason, implementation was supported by a steering group which included the Association of Visiting Committees, the Howard League in Scotland, the Scottish Human Rights Commission and Positive Prisons? Positive Futures, an organisation representing the interests of people who are or have been in custody.

The first year of operation has been focussed on the recruitment and training of the new Independent Prison Monitors, building relationships with Scotland’s 15 prisons and developing the systems and processes to support monitoring, including an IT system for recording monitoring data.

Over 130 volunteers from Scotland’s communities are now fully appointed Independent Prison Monitors with around 20 more provisional appointees currently completing training.  In the period from the implementation date, 31 August 2015, to March 2016, IPMs completed over 500 monitoring visits to Scotland’s prisons and dealt with over 500 prisoner requests.

About the New System

The new system brings monitoring under the remit of HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for Scotland, alongside but separate to Prison inspection.  First and foremost, the new system brings prison monitoring in Scotland in line with OPCAT, but stepping beyond that, a number of key principles set out wider aspirations, aiming to build on the positives of the previous Visiting Committee system and maximise the impact of evidence gathered through monitoring. 


Independent Prison Monitors (IPMs) are volunteers from local communities – local people act as the eyes and ears of their community in monitoring treatment and conditions in prisons, improving understanding beyond the prison walls.

Around 150 volunteers have joined the new system, working in 15 teams, one in each prison in Scotland.  IPMs include people from all walks of life, including young people completing study or training and keen to learn new skills, professionals who fit the role around their working day, parents or carers who spare time from their caring responsibilities to offer their input and retired people who are keen to offer their experience and skill.


IPMs have free and unfettered access to prisons, set out in the legislation.  They monitor without any escort by prison staff and may go to any part of the prison and look into any issue they observe or any issue raised by a prisoner.  Prison staff are required by law to support their investigations.

The Independent Prison Monitoring Advisory Group, which sits quarterly, provides an additional safeguard to independence.  The Group is chaired by Dr Alan Mitchell of the Scottish Human Rights Commission and includes members with a range of expertise in prisons, healthcare and human rights.  There are 6 IPM members from across Scotland, ensuring an independent route to identify and highlight any concerns with the system.  The Group reviews the guidance and support for Independent Prison Monitoring, and its impact.


HMIPS undertook consultation with people held in prison to establish the best communication routes for them.  Prisoners suggested a confidential phone line for making requests, alongside the more traditional request boxes and direct approaches.  In the last quarter HMIPS has received an average of 90 requests per month through the new freephone, and family members and third sector organisations have also used the number to make requests on behalf of people in prison.


The new IPMs have the Standards for Inspection and Monitoring as a framework.  Their observations in the prison are recorded under these 10 standards, the same ones used for prison inspection in Scotland:

  • Lawful and transparent custody;
  • Decency;
  • Personal safety;
  • Health and wellbeing;
  • Effective, courteous and humane exercise of authority;
  • Respect, autonomy and protection against mistreatment;
  • Purposeful activity;
  • Transitions from custody to life in the community;
  • Equality, dignity and respect; and
  • Organisational effectiveness.

The Independent Prison Monitoring Team at HMIPS provides day to day support and coordination for the IPMs.  The team, which reports to the Chief Inspector of Prisons for Scotland, includes three Regional Prison Monitoring Coordinators and one National Coordinator who provide training and support and check monitoring practice.  There is also a support officer, providing administrative support and systems administration for the IT system.  The team also escalate and resolve issues raised across the prison estate both on an informal basis and formally through quarterly meetings with prison governors.

Continuous improvement

The new system is designed to bring together findings from monitoring at a local, regional and national level to explore patterns, identify concerns and highlight good practice.  The Regional Coordinators link in with prisons and other stakeholders locally to develop routes to highlight and resolve concerns and issues and share any good practice identified through monitoring.  The National Coordinator brings system information together across Scotland, to feed in to the Scottish Prison Service at a corporate level, and to highlight key issues to other national stakeholders including the Scottish Government and the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman.

Information from monitoring is also shared with prison inspectors to inform their work, and to identify areas where joint approaches by prison inspection and monitoring may be effective.  IPMs may also be involved in follow up work around Inspection, where issues are identified that would benefit from regular attention.

Looking forward

With IPM teams in place along with the systems, processes and guidance to support them, we are now beginning to see the added value associated with the new system.  A building picture of life in Scotland’s prisons is now supported by consistently gathered and recorded evidence, and we will continue to use this to engage with stakeholders and support improvement.

An internal process evaluation, to review the implementation of Independent Prison Monitoring and identify key lessons and improvement required, will be completed in 2016.  HMIPS is also working towards the Investors in Volunteers award, to ensure that IPMs are properly supported to undertake their role.

Getting in touch

If you would like to find out more about Independent Prison Monitoring in Scotland please email or call 0131 244 1844.  If you or someone you know is currently in prison custody in Scotland and would like to see an Independent Prison Monitor, please ring 0800 056 7476.