Catholics in Scottish Prisons

Roman Catholics continue to be overrepresented in Scotland’s prison population, but the situation appears to be improving slowly. Catholics accounted for 28% of Scottish prisoners in 2001, 24% in 2006 and 23% in 2008-09, whereas they constituted 16% of all Scots at the 2001 census.

This is one key finding of newly-published desk-based research commissioned by the Public Petitions Committee of the Scottish Parliament and undertaken by Dr Susan Wiltshire, who lectures in crime and criminal justice at the University of Glasgow.

Her study follows long-standing concerns raised in the Scottish Parliament and Scottish media about the apparently excessive number of Catholic prisoners, and speculation about the possible reasons for this.

But the specific origins of the secondary analysis of existing research and statistics are to be found in Tom Minogue’s Open Petition PE1073 on the topic, which was lodged on 14 September 2007, and in follow-on investigations by the Scottish Parliament.  

Deep-rooted prejudice and discrimination against Catholics in Scotland and suspected sectarianism in the criminal justice system (especially at sentencing) have often been thought to lie at the root of the problem.

However, Wiltshire is inclined to downplay this causation and to locate the primary explanation in the strong relationships between socio-economic disadvantage and imprisonment and between Catholics and disadvantage, which can be documented from the 2001 census and other sources.

Age is also a factor. 40% of Scottish Catholics were under 30 at the census, significantly more than was the case with affiliates of other Christian denominations in Scotland.

Since almost half of prisoners are under 30, it can be seen that Catholics are disproportionately drawn from the age cohort most likely to be in prison.

Likewise, residence is part of the equation, not least in Glasgow, which records both above-average rates of imprisonment and of Catholics among the city’s residents.

‘In sum, the Catholic population is most embedded in the West of Scotland in areas of deprivation, where a large proportion of prisoners are likely to reside. It is also where most Section 74 (religious aggravator) offences have occurred.’

‘The question therefore should shift from asking why Catholics are disproportionately represented in Scottish jails to why so many Catholics continue to live in areas of deprivation in Scotland, particularly the West, and why they score worse on a range of social indicators. It seems clear that Catholics are disproportionately represented in Scottish jails because of the compelling relationship between deprivation and imprisonment.’

Wiltshire’s report can be read at:

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