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by Margaret Taylor
16 May 2024
Government to release prisoners early to deal with overcrowding

Angela Constance will allow prisoners to be released early to ease overcrowding | Alamy

Government to release prisoners early to deal with overcrowding

Justice secretary Angela Constance has confirmed that prisoners will be released early from Scotland’s jails in a bid to deal with chronic overcrowding.

Although the official capacity of Scotland’s prisons is 7,725, the number of inmates being held has sat above that level for much of the past year.

This week the total number hit 8,365, the highest level seen in more than a decade and putting occupancy at 108 per cent.

Speaking in parliament today, Constance said that despite taking steps to try to reduce the prison population “it's increasingly clear that further action is required”, adding that she will bring into force section 11 of the Bail and Release from Custody (Scotland) Act on 26 May.

The act, which was passed last year, gives ministers the power to release prisoners in emergency situations.

“My hope was that this would never need to have been used,” Constance said. “However, as things stand today, my view is that we have reached the threshold for taking emergency action.

“The sudden and sharp rise over recent weeks, combined with an already high population, has significantly increased the risk to the health, safety and welfare of both prisoners and SPS [Scottish Prison Service] staff, as well as to the security and the good order of the prison estate.

“Serious concerns have been formally raised to me by the chief executive of SPS, His Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons and the Prison Governors' Association.”

She added: “My intention is that those released would be serving sentences of under four years.

“Public safety will always be my priority, and I can reassure parliament that there are protections in place so that no one serving a sentence for sexual offences or domestic abuse will be released, with a governor veto also available.”

It is anticipated that between 300 and 500 prisoners could be released under the move, though Constance noted that “not a single prisoner” would be released without parliament’s consent.

Last year Michael Stoney, governor of HMP Barlinnie, told Holyrood that his prison, which acts as a backstop for the entire Scottish system, was close to breaking point due to overcrowding.

“Our job at Barlinnie is to step up – that’s the function we provide to the prison service, but it doesn’t make it right,” he said.

“Anything above 1,000 [inmates] is contingency and we’re operating in contingency all the time.”

In response to Constance’s statement Phil Fairlie, assistant secretary of the Prison Officers Association (POA), said it is clear that the justice secretary “recognises the extent to which our prisons are in a state of crisis”, but said “we need action beyond the rhetoric”.

“I am pleased to hear her refer to it in those terms and for her recognition of the continued risk it places on our members if it is not tackled as a matter of urgency,” he said.

In addition to looking at early release, Constance said the government is going to review how the release of long-term prisoners is managed and in particular will look again at measures that effectively ban the automatic release of prisoners when they come to the end of their sentence.

She will also bring forward secondary legislation to amend the eligibility criteria for home detention curfew to increase the period of time people can spend on release under licence conditions.

Fairlie said it is “absolutely crucial that these steps are supported to give our prisons and prison officers the breathing space and support they so badly need right now”.

“We have been extremely grateful for the cross-party support we have secured recently on behalf of our members,” he added.

“The real test now will be in seeing that support being replicated in approving these measures across the parliament, and letting prison staff know that their voice is being heard.”

Scottish Conservative deputy justice spokesperson Sharon Dowey blamed the SNP for the overcrowding in the prison system saying the “spiralling situation” is down to the Scottish Government’s “abject failure to revamp Scotland’s prison estate”.

“They have failed to deliver desperately needed new prisons on time and on budget, which has had a deeply damaging impact on prison overcrowding,” she said.

“Now their only answer is using emergency powers to release prisoners, which they previously said they did not want to ever use.

“Every prisoner is behind bars for good reason following a robust and independent judiciary process.

“Victims will not have been reassured by Angela Constance’s responses in relation to the risk posed to the public when these offenders are ultimately released back into our communities.

“The SNP’s justice secretary must be fully transparent as this situation unfolds and reassure the public that there is no risk to them from this decision.”

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