Alert as number of prisoners held on remand soars by 40%

Scotland's jails are the most crowded they have been for four years, with a dramatic rise in those on remand driving up the prison population, it has emerged.
Scotland's jails are the most crowded they have been for four years, with a dramatic rise in those on remand driving up the prison population, it has emerged.
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Scotland’s jails are the most crowded they have been for four years, with a dramatic rise in those on remand driving up the prison population, it has emerged.

Concern over the number of prisoners held in Scotland will be raised at Holyrood today when Labour quotes its analysis of official data.

Labour will tell MSPs there were a total of 7,804 people behind bars last month, the highest figure recorded since August 2014 when there were 7,844 prisoners.

The 7,804 figure represents a 9 per cent increase since December 2016 when the figure was 7,185.

Further analysis of the Scottish Prison Population figures reveals the number of individuals held on remand increased by 40 per cent over the same period.

The figures showed last month there were 1,565 remand prisoners compared with 1,114 in December 2016.

Today Labour’s justice spokesman Daniel Johnson will claim remand is being used “disproportionately” when a justice committee debate is held at Holyrood.

The debate follows widespread concerns that too many women and those accused of minor offences are held in prison ahead of a trial.

Labour’s analysis of official figures also shows the number of prisoners aged over 21 now stands at 7,441, the highest level since weekly records began.

Last month the outgoing HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for Scotland (HMIPS) David Strang called for more action to reduce the number of women in custody in his final annual report.

Currently there are more than 390 women prisoners.

Mr Strang’s report noted the number of female inmates was not getting significantly smaller.

Ahead of today’s debate, Mr Johnson said: “Prison officers and other staff do tremendous work, helping rehabilitate prisoners and keep the public safe.

“However, these numbers should be a wake-up call to the justice system. Prisoner numbers have risen sharply this year to a four-year high. Most worryingly, those increases are being driven by a higher remand population.

“Remand is an essential tool to keep the public safe. However, in many cases, particularly for more minor offences and for women, remand is being used disproportionately. More than half those held in remand under summary conviction don’t go on to receive a custodial sentence.

“It simply cannot be right that our prison population is being swelled with people who have not been found guilty of any crime.”

Yesterday Wendy Sinclair-Gieben, Scotland’s new chief inspector of prisons, said remand should only be used as an “absolute last resort”.

She said: “I’m aware that the prison population is creeping up due to the increase in remand prisoners. 

“Remand should be an absolute last resort. My feeling is that the judiciary need alternative disposals available to them, which means they don’t end up using remand unless it’s necessary. What’s concerning me is the number of women on remand because that’s a very high proportion of the women in prison.”

This summer the use of remand was criticised by Holyrood’s justice committee.

The committee’s report found that time spent on remand was unproductive and potentially damaging for the accused and their family.

Witnesses were particularly concerned about the impact of remand on women, who were often “particularly vulnerable”.

The committee explored whether greater availability of alternatives to remand such as bail supervision, or additional support for people granted bail, could reduce the pressure on prisons.

A Scottish Prison Service spokesman said prisoners serving life sentences were now spending more time in jail while the numbers imprisoned for sex offences had risen since the millennium from around 500 to 1,200.

Meanwhile, the number of young people in prison had declined by around one third and the female prison population had stabilised at just under 400.