Early release of prisoners to ease overcrowding backed by MSPs

Prison officer walking past closed cell doorsImage source, PA Media
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More than 500 prisoners will be released as Scottish prisons have seen an "unprecedented" rise in population

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MSPs have voted in favour of releasing more than 500 prisoners early to address overcrowding in Scottish jails.

The chief executive of the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) told politicians the move was necessary to protect the safety and welfare of both inmates and staff.

Emergency release will happen in four waves from the end of this month.

But opposition parties have questioned whether enough has been done to notify the victims of crime.

Proposals for early prisoner release were announced in May following an "unprecedented" rise in the prison population.

The Scottish government said the number of prisoners had increased by 400 since 18 March.

At one point this week there were 8,365 people behind bars, the highest number since 2012.

The plans were approved by Holyrood's Criminal Justice Committee on Wednesday.

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Justice Secretary Angela Constance said as things stand "emergency action" is needed to tackle the prison population

Appearing before the committee, Justice Secretary Angela Constance said the prison population currently stood at 8,294.

This is less than the 8,348 on the day plans were initially announced.

But it still exceeds the target operating capacity of 8,007.

While the cause of the increase is not yet known, the justice secretary said there was a "critical risk" to the safe operation of the prison estate, with several prisons "essentially full".

Ms Constance said the move would only apply to those serving sentences shorter than four years and not to anyone convicted of sexual or domestic abuse offences.

The Scottish government said around 550 prisoners are currently eligible for early release, external with 65% otherwise due to be released in the next 90 days.

'Emergency action'

Scottish ministers have the power to release prisoners in emergency situations under section 11 of the Bail and Release from Custody (Scotland) Act 2023, external.

Ms Constance told MSPs she had hoped the power "would never need to be used".

Speaking last month she said: "As things stand, 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 staff, as well as to the security and the good order of the prison estate."

Image source, Victim Support Scotland
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Kate Wallace, chief executive of Victim Support Scotland, expressed concern at the move

Scotland's chief inspector of prisons had written to ministers calling for urgent action to cut the prison population.

SPS chief executive Teresa Medhurst told the Holyrood committee emergency release was now "appropriate and necessary".

She said: "It is my professional view that the use of emergency release is appropriate and necessary to protect the security and good order of prisons and the safety and welfare of prisoners and those who work in our prisons.

"With the population increasing at such steep levels, I have indicated to the Cabinet Secretary that we will soon no longer be able to meet the basic rights of prisoners."

Charity Victim Support Scotland expressed concerns over early prisoner release which they said could create trauma, anxiety and "essentially more victims".

Chief executive Kate Wallace said: "Victims are still feeling the impact of when prisoners released on an emergency basis during Covid, which resulted in numerous drug deaths and a 40% reoffending rate within the first six-months.

"Victim Support Scotland welcomes measures to put services in place for released prisoners and is working collaboratively with the Scottish government to minimise the negative impact on victims, and to maximise all available support and information."

Ms Constance said the Scottish government was doing "everything we can" to support victims' support organisations.

But Scottish Conservative justice spokesman Russell Findlay described the plan as "shambolic".

He added: "SNP ministers are entirely responsible for this crisis by failing to build long overdue and vital new prisons.

"Setting free more than 500 prisoners before they’ve done their time is not the answer and will cause fear and anxiety for victims."

Labour justice spokeswoman Pauline McNeill warned the move would put "unjustifiable pressure" on local authorities.

She said: "This sticking-plaster SNP solution will do nothing to tackle the causes of overcrowding and could put us back right to where we are today - considering more emergency releases - in just a few months’ time.

"Ultimately, the Scottish government has broken its fundamental promise to victims - that perpetrators serve their full punishment."