Prison chief’s warning as Scots inmate numbers hit record high

A rise in convictions for serious crimes, including historic sexual offences, and an end to automatic early release have driven Scotland’s prison population to a record high .

Inside Glasgow's Barlinnie Prison

An increase of 709 inmates between March last year and this was equivalent to one additional large prison according to the Chief Inspector of Prisons for Scotland.

As a result, Wendy Sinclair-Gieben, has warned that prisons are struggling to cope with inmate numbers, putting increasing pressure on staff and potentially undermining the care of prisoners.

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In her annual report, published today. she also says that Scottish Government moves to cut down on short prison sentences would not “be enough to bring the prison population back in line with design capacity”.

Her fears were echoed by the Scottish Prison Officers’ Association, who said that there had been no new staff recruited to deal with increasing prisoner numbers, and as a result “sick levels had never been higher”, adding to “front-line” pressures.

The Scottish Prison Service (SPS) also said that yesterday saw the highest number of prisoners behind bars in Scotland in 20 years - adding that new pressures in dealing with elderly prisoners and increased numbers of sexual offenders, which have trebled over two decades, is fuelling a prison population timebomb.

Yesterday Ms Sinclair-Gieben said: “Scotland’s incarceration rate is one of the highest in Europe.

“The additional number of prisoners and an increasingly complex population places a heavy burden on an already overstretched prison service in Scotland. I am very concerned that the number of prisoners is starting to exceed design capacity, resulting in not only additional pressures on staff, the prison regime and activities, but also on the essential programme and throughcare activities designed to reduce recidivism.”

Scotland has 15 prisons which have a combined design capacity of 7918 prisoners. The inspector’s annual report latest report states that in March this year the number of inmates stood at 8,122 - 15.4 per cent of them on remand - compared with April 2018 when the population was 7,413.

Tom Fox, a spokesman for the Scottish Prison Service said the statistics for yesterday saw the prison population stand at 8308, “the highest ever.”

He said: “The figures don’t even show the whole story in terms of capacity pressures because a space on paper does not automatically equal a place in reality. We have had to deal with a rise in sexual offenders from 500 people 20 years ago to 1500 today, and these prisoners cannot be mixed with others, so even if there was space available among them, we cannot just place any prisoner there.

“Similarly, police are far more successful at securing convictions for serious and organised crime, and these prisoners bring with them a level of violence which means they cannot automatically be placed anywhere there is deemed to be a space. Then there are issues such as being unable to mix young offenders with adult prisoners, and women prisoners too are separate.

“It’s a constant juggle, while at the same time the general prison population is rising, and we have prisoners serving life sentences of 20 years, whereas in the past such a sentence might have only meant 11 years. So they are in the system for longer too.”

Sinclair-Gieben said her inspectors and the Independent Prison Monitoring Teams were starting to observe adverse issues such as increased cell sharing, people being imprisoned further from home, staff having less time to deal with individuals “and an inevitable increase in the waiting list for offender behaviour programmes.”

She added: “The sharp rise in population can be attributed to a variety of reasons including 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. Other factors include the reduction of prisoners being released on Home Detention Curfew, very few prisoners subject to an Order for Lifelong Restriction achieving parole, and a legislative change that halted automatic early release for people serving long-term sentences.

“All of these factors are likely to continue to place pressure on the size of the prison population with no anticipated relief from additional new capacity coming on stream.”

She also warned of financial pressures facing the SPS, as a result of being “obliged to purchase places, at significant additional cost, in the two privately run prisons in Scotland, HMP Addiewell and HMP Kilmarnock”.

This she said “will inevitably impact adversely on other planned investments.”

While she welcomed the Scottish Government’s plan to extend the presumption against short prison sentences from three months to 12 months, she said she was concerned “it may not be enough to bring the prison population back in line with design capacity, and that planned investment in key infrastructure must not be delayed. There remains an urgent need to progress development of a replacement for HMPs Barlinnie, Greenock and Inverness.”

She added that the new Community Custody Units for women prisoners were a “positive step forward, but it remains to be seen whether, without further changes in approaches to sentencing, there is sufficient capacity for the almost 400 women currently in prison.”

Responding to the report, Phil Fairlie, chair of the POA Scotland said: “We share the entirely legitimate concerns expressed by the Chief Inspector in relation to the prisoner numbers being experienced in our system at present.

“The growth in numbers being the equivalent of a large new prison, but without a single new member of staff to manage that growth is completely unsustainable and is already having a significant impact inside our prisons.

“While the public will welcome the fact that serious offenders are serving longer sentences, and that automatic early release has now been removed, the system needs to see the presumption against short sentences starting to impact very quickly if our members are to continue to cope with the consequences of these legislative changes.”

He added: “Our sick absence levels have never been higher due to the pressures being experienced, so it is obvious that an ever smaller staff group are being asked to manage the ‘front line’ in our prisons and that simply cannot go on with significant impact on those staff.

“There comes a point when we need to stop kidding ourselves that this prisoner population is temporary and the problem is going to go away. We need to staff our prisons based on the numbers we are actually being asked to manage, and not the numbers some would wish them to be.”

Scottish Labour’s justice spokeswoman, Pauline McNeill MSP, said that the report was a “serious warning” about overcrowding. She added: “Our prisons are bursting at the seams as authorities struggle to cope amid a lack of resources from the SNP government.

“The presumption against 12-month sentences is welcome but not the silver bullet required to reduce prison populations as promised by the SNP. It’s not acceptable simply to reduce custody sentencing to deal with over crowding. There must be a clear and separate commitment to community sentencing properly resourced.

“The SNP need to confront the reality that we need to invest in our prison service and alternatives to custody in order to deliver justice and public safety.”

And Scottish Liberal Democrat justice spokesperson Liam McArthur MSP said that Scotland’s prisons “are in a state of emergency.”

“Some prisons are housing up to 500 people more than they were built for. We know that self-harm, suicide, and assaults within prison walls are on all on a terrifying trajectory. Staff are working in pressure cooker conditions and its undoing critical work, causing the cancellation of rehabilitation services which avoid people coming back to prison before you know it.

“In the face of this crisis Scottish Liberal Democrats have submitted bold proposals designed to boost rehabilitation and make community sentences more robust. Justice can be tough without being fundamentally unsafe.”

However a Scottish Government spokesperson said work was on going to “ensure safety and security” is maintained. They added: “We are grateful to the Chief Inspector for this annual report which recognises that Scotland’s prisons are generally well run and stable, thanks in large part to the hard work and dedication of prison staff who have forged positive relationships with prisoners.

“We recognise the significant pressures that recent increases in prisoner numbers have placed on frontline prison and healthcare staff and we are working closely with the prison service to ensure safety and security are maintained. This is why it is vital that Parliament continues to back our progressive justice reforms.”

In her report Sinclair-Gieben also said she was “pleasantly reassured” that levels of violence, self-harm and prison suicide “although rising, have not risen as drastically as they did under similar conditions in the English prison service.”

She said two of her previous recommendations were being implemented including the introduction of improved discharge grants for young people under 18, and the anticipated

pilot of in-cell telephony at HMP YOI Polmont.

And she added that despite “intense SPS security activities” drugs were still being brought into prisons, though this “should not detract, however, from recognising the selfless and sometimes heroic efforts made by staff to intervene when the lives of those in their care appear at risk.”