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25 March 2020
Howard League Scotland calls for release of low-risk prisoners

Image credit: Peter Macdiarmid/PA

Howard League Scotland calls for release of low-risk prisoners

Scotland’s independent penal reform organisation has written to Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf calling for the “executive release” of some prisoners and the expansion of Home Detention Curfew, to mitigate the impact of COVID-19.

On Tuesday, Yousaf said he could not rule out releasing some prisoners early to ensure the safety of inmates and prison staff, as he announced visits to prisons would be suspended.

He tweeted: “In these unprecedented times every measure will be explored to keep citizens safe - that includes prisoners & staff. I'm actively exploring prisoner release measures as virus continues to spread in our prisons. Robust risk assessment & public safety will be primary considerations.”

Today, Howard League Scotland said it had written to the cabinet secretary to highlight the need for “a clear plan of action to protect the physical and mental health of those living and working in our prisons”.

“We urged haste in confirming proposals to reduce the prison population, on the basis that this was the primary mechanism through which prisoners and staff could be kept safe,” the organisation said.

“We were therefore supportive of yesterday’s announcement that, following the lead of other countries such as Ireland, Iran, Argentina and Italy, the Scottish Government was actively exploring measures for the executive release of some prisoners and the expansion of Home Detention Curfew.

“We were also pleased to hear that solutions to maintaining family contact, such as restricted dial mobile phones and video-conferencing facilities would be put in place in the coming days.”

The organisation said if the prison population was not decreased soon then the health of the general public would be put at risk because prisoners may end up taking up “a disproportionately high number” of Intensive Care Unit beds.

“Prison health is public health, and the best way to keep everyone safe is to carefully, but quickly, release some prisoners who are low-risk and have somewhere to live.

“This is not an easy process to implement, but the decision to do so, needs to be taken now.”

Howard League said social distancing “is almost impossible” within a prison, and that doubling and sometimes tripling of cells means that those with COVID-10 are “already likely to have passed it onto their cellmates”.

“With reports of inevitably rising tensions across the prison estate, there are extreme risks to the health and safety of prisoners and staff within every establishment,” the group said.

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