Prison numbers crisis is not new but solving it will now be harder

A prison numbers ­crisis is nothing new. I ­experienced it early in office with weekly reports passed on to Cabinet. It wasn’t easy and disaster was faced on ­several ­occasions. That I remained in office was down to the willingness of prison officers to work with numbers over capacity, that they could have rejected. Now we’re back there again but it’ll be harder this time.

Prison officers were once willing to work with over-capacity in jails but a pensions row could remove goodwill. Picture: Michael Cooper/PA Wire

Much of the problem comes down to the war on drugs that fills our institutions and demands that prison be a first, not last, resort. But the Scottish Government has also exacerbated the situation. Ending automatic early release hasn’t really kicked in but it will and it’ll be hard. Likewise, ­abandoning the large female prison earmarked for Greenock was the right thing to do. But, not replacing Cornton Vale with even a small prison has a knock-on effect.

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Worse still, tightening tagging criteria has reduced numbers on that scheme such that you ­wonder why millions were spent on it. Short term populist actions have long term prison ­consequences. But what must worry the ­Government most is that the ­relationship with the Prison Service is not as healthy as it once was. I benefited from union support for rolling back privatisation. The issue now though is pensions. It’s absurd to expect officers to work until their late 60s – some jobs just can’t be done when you’re older.