Appearing at Holyrood’s justice committee yesterday, Deputy Chief Inspector of Prisons Stephen Sandham warned jails were “well beyond” capacity.
He said this was having a “dramatic impact” on the safety of both inmates and prison staff.
Mr Sandham said: “From the inspectorate’s point of view, we’re extremely concerned by the really dramatic rise in the prison population.
“The population has increased by over 700 in the last 12 months, which is equivalent to a large prison in its own right, and by over 1,000 prisoners in the last 16 months.
“So it’s gone up from 7,200 in April 2018 to 8,300 approximately now. That’s way beyond the planned design capacity of the prisons service.
“The planned design capacity is around about 7,800. So you’re talking about over 500 more prisoners having to be accommodated than is normally the case.
“That’s having really quite a dramatic impact in our view on the safety of prisoners but also the safety of prison officers as well.”
Phil Fairlie, national chairman of the Prison Officers Association Scotland, told the committee the prison environment had led to a significant increase in the number of sick absences, with a rise in violence levels and staff unable to cope.
“From the prison officers’ point of view, the details that we’d want you to focus are the violence levels going up in prisons, both on staff and on prisoners,” he said.
“Whether they’re serious or they’re common assaults, both of those numbers have gone up substantially.
“That’s not just because of the growth in the prisoner population, which you’d assume might add to those numbers. That’s not the full explanation for it.”
He explained: “There’s lots going on in terms of the climate, the environment in which staff are being asked to work and prisoners are being held in.
“The sick absence levels themselves I think are a very significant factor in terms of describing what the impact is of the overcrowding on the staff inside the prisons.”