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Some short-term prisoners to be released early due to coronavirus outbreak

Prison cell - Image credit: Paul Faith/PA

Some short-term prisoners to be released early due to coronavirus outbreak

Some short-term prisoners in Scotland will be released early under measures designed to help tackle the coronavirus outbreak.

The scheme will be limited to short-term prisoners sentenced to a maximum of 18 months in prison who are nearing the end of their sentence with no more than 90 days left to serve.

Certain categories of prisoners will be excluded, such as those with convictions for sexual offences, domestic abuse or terrorism offences.

It is estimated that around 300 to 450 prisoners will be considered for early release from 30 April.

The intention is to reduce prisoner numbers to help prison and healthcare staff to safely manage all those who remain in their care during the outbreak.

It follows similar measures taken elsewhere in the UK and internationally, with countries including England, Wales, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and France having already taken the decision to release prisoners in response to COVID-19.

Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf said: “In this exceptional public health emergency, we are taking focused action to protect public safety as well as prisoners, prison staff and the NHS staff and others that work in our prisons.

“Using these emergency release powers, combined with increasing those on HDC [home detention curfew], will substantially increase the availability of single-cell accommodation across the prison estate, which in turn will help SPS [Scottish Prison Service] contain the spread of coronavirus in our prisons.

“In addition, the resulting reduction in the prison population will allow the prison service to ease restrictions put on prisoners during these challenging times.

“The Scottish Prison Service has had to make significant changes to how they operate already in just a few weeks, with family visits paused, restricted activities and additional time in cells for those in their care.

“We must help staff to manage prisons in a sustainable way over the weeks and months ahead.

“This latest step – based on the emergency powers passed by MSPs earlier this month – will give them greater capacity to help ensure a safe custodial environment.”

The decision has the backing of the three of the four opposition parties, although all three emphasised the need for support to be available for prisoners who are being released into the community.

Scottish Labour's justice spokesperson, James Kelly, said: “It has been a real concern that the overcrowded conditions that exist on the Scottish prison estate could exacerbate the spread of COVID-19 in our prisons.

“As well as being a serious health concern for both staff and prisoners, the current numbers overburden staff who are already facing high absence levels amongst their colleagues.

“It is therefore the correct decision to release prisoners who are approaching the end of their sentence – provided they pose no risk to the public.

“However, it is also vital that a proper process and provisions are put in place to ensure that prisoners who are released have no risk of transferring the virus back into their communities.

“It is also essential that proper support is provided to those who are re-entering wider society. In particular, it is crucial that no person who is released will be homeless.”

Scottish Green justice spokesperson John Finnie said: “The Scottish Government has had a difficult task to consider the rights and needs of victims, prisoners, staff and families, but this decision to go ahead with limited early release is the right one, with some important exceptions for public safety. “Apart from anything else, we simply don’t have enough cells for inmates to self-isolate.

“However, it is vital those released are given a safe landing going home, and for their families.

“Many prisoners are released with no home to go to, and as well as housing and financial assistance, individuals often need support with addictions and both physical and mental health issues.

“This is even more important in the current crisis.”

Scottish Liberal Democrat justice spokesperson Liam McArthur commented: “Making decisions like these, in the context of a pandemic, is an unenviable position to be in.

“It’s all the more difficult because of where we started. Scotland’s prisons were in crisis before COVID-19.

"We can't just shift that burden to other under pressure services like GPs and housing, so there needs to be a proper support package accompanying emergency release. 

“This is important to avoid reoffending and protect the rights of victims.”

The Scottish Human Rights Commission and Howard League Scotland also welcomed the announcement.

Scottish Human Rights Commission chair Judith Robertson said: “People in prison are an extremely vulnerable population and those working in prisons are key frontline workers providing a vital public service.

“The epidemiological evidence is clear that prisons are places of high risk in the current pandemic, and the Council of Europe’s Committee on the Prevention of Torture has set out the human rights principles that should be applied to people in prison and other places of detention in this context. 

“While a number of measures have been adopted to date by the Scottish Government, the Scottish Prison Service and the judiciary, including Schedule 4 of the Coronavirus (Scotland) Act 2020, these measures have not yet managed to reduce the prison population to a safe and manageable level.

“It is therefore crucial to act urgently to reduce the prison population in order to ensure the continued safe and effective operation of prisons in Scotland and we welcome this announcement today that responds to this need.”

Howard League Scotland said: “Releasing a limited number of prisoners on short-term sentences nearing the end of their time in custody is a welcome first step.

“In doing so, Howard League Scotland believes that the Scottish Government is taking a sensible, although somewhat tentative path, to mitigate a potentially catastrophic public health crisis.

“These measures will go some, although not all, of the way to achieving the target of single cell occupancy required to provide a safe custodial environment.

It added: “The Scottish Government has taken seriously its responsibility to save lives, not just the lives of those who are thought to be most deserving. We commend them for that.”

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