Leader comment: Soaring prison numbers cannot simply be solved by building more cells

Inside Glasgow's Barlinnie Prison
Inside Glasgow's Barlinnie Prison
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On the face of it, there are two basic responses to Scotland’s increasing number of prisoners – stop jailing so many people or build more prisons.

It is easy to argue for either position and both would find support depending on your point of view.

Down south, Boris Johnson has committed to spending £2.5 billion to create an extra 10,000 new prison places, a move which is likely to go down very well with his supporters.

Others will question of course what exactly that does to tackle the underlying problem.

In Scotland, the incarceration rate is already one of the highest in Europe with the number of prisoners on remand awaiting trial rising from 1,142 last year to 1,350 by 31 March this year.

Overall, the prison population rose by 709 in the year to the end of March, which Wendy Sinclair-Gieben, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for Scotland, says is the equivalent of one additional large prison.

But the other response – simply cutting the number of prison sentences – will naturally cause its own problems. An assumption against short-term sentences is fine but only works with robust alternatives which command the confidence of the public. Otherwise, they are simply dismissed as ‘soft touch’.

On one measure the rise in the prison population is good news – with today’s report pointing to longer sentences for the most serious of crimes, a rise in the number of people being convicted of sexual offences, and more serious and organised crime being successfully prosecuted.

No-one can suggest that should not be happening or that the most serious criminals should not be handed the toughest of sentences.

The answer to the problem therefore must lie somewhere in between the two responses.

It is clear investment is desperately needed in Scotland’s prison estate to bring it up to scratch and avoid the need to buy expensive private places. That inmates are still being housed in Victorian facilities which are no longer fit for purpose is clearly not acceptable and does nothing to break the cycle of reoffending.

However, that investment in the estate must go hand-in-hand with long-term reform aimed at reducing the number behind bars in the first place, while ensuring rehabilitation of offenders, protection of the public and justice for victims is to the fore.

Tackling the issue will take more than simply building more cells.