Scottish prisoners could sue over human rights breach, report warns

The report from MSPs warns of the financial risk from litigation

The Scottish Government could face legal action from prisoners over the conditions in the country’s crowded jails, a new report has warned, amid calls for a fresh review of the prison estate to ensure the human rights are not being breached.

The Scottish parliament’s Public Audit Committee published its report on the state of Scottish prisons on Monday, following the probe from watchdog Audit Scotland, and found the system to be at “crisis point”, according to the committee’s convener.

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In the 46-page document, the committee looks into the delivery of the prisoner transport contract delivered by GEOAmey, which has been regularly criticised for its failures in recent years.

A Holyrood committee has urged the Scottish Government to conduct a review of the prison estate to ensure the human rights of those in custody are not being breached. Picture: PAA Holyrood committee has urged the Scottish Government to conduct a review of the prison estate to ensure the human rights of those in custody are not being breached. Picture: PA
A Holyrood committee has urged the Scottish Government to conduct a review of the prison estate to ensure the human rights of those in custody are not being breached. Picture: PA

But it also looked at the prison estate and the current overcrowding, to tackle which the Scottish Government is set to release around 550 prisoners beginning at the end of June.

In his report, the Auditor General raised concerns the Scottish Government could be exposed to litigation by prisoners as a result of the poor conditions in some jails.

The committee separately heard from Scottish Prison Service (SPS) chief executive Teresa Medhurst that seven prisons were “on the brink” and at “red status” because of overcrowding.

“The committee shares the concerns of the Auditor General for Scotland that human rights issues present a live risk for the Scottish Government and the Scottish Prison Service, as well as a future financial risk,” the committee wrote in its report.

“We recommend that the Scottish Government and the Scottish Prison Service urgently conduct a review to ensure human rights are not being breached as a result of the concerns raised in the section 22 report and highlighted to the committee during oral evidence.”

Looking at the GEOAmey contract, the committee found there was no single factor responsible for the failings – which have seen prisoners miss court appearances and medical appointments – with “staffing issues, an increasing prison population with more complex health needs and an increased court capacity aimed at addressing court backlogs” all contributing.

The committee – which also shared concerns of the chief inspector of prisons around the human rights of prisoners relating to healthcare access – recommended changes to make the contract better are found and actioned “as a matter of urgency”.

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Appearing before the committee earlier this year, GEOAmey managing director David Jones apologised “fully” for the failings in the contract.

Committee convener Richard Leonard said: “Our report is calling for urgent and long-term action to put our prisons and the delivery of services to support them on a more secure footing.

“Whether it’s the deteriorating condition of Scotland’s prison estate, our over-populated prisons or the repeated failures in the delivery of the Scottish Courts Custody Escorting Services contract – it is clear that we are at a crisis point.”

He added: “The Public Audit Committee recognises the challenges facing Scotland’s prison services.

“We commend the efforts of frontline staff, particularly at a time when prisoner numbers are at a record high, but it is clear that more must be done to address these challenges and that the time for action is now.”

A spokesman for the Scottish Government said: “Whilst the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) is managing a high and complex prison population under considerable pressure, the Scottish Government and SPS work closely together to address any issues.

“We remain committed to ensuring that the human rights of the people in our prisons are respected, protected and fulfilled.

“In an extremely challenging fiscal environment, we are increasing investment in our vital prison service by increasing the SPS resource budget by 10% to £436.5m in 2024/25.

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“In addition, £167m of capital funding is being invested in the prison estate to allow construction of HMP Highland and HMP Glasgow, continuing the modernisation of the prison estate to better meet the needs of staff and prisoners.

“While it is clear that the performance of the GEOAmey contract has not been working how it should, we have provided additional funding to support SPS and other partners in delivering an improvement in the contract which has resulted in early positive signs, with a slowdown in staff attrition and improved staff numbers.”

A spokesman for the SPS said: “We fully recognise the importance of ensuring prison infrastructure is fit for purpose and meets the rights and needs of all those who live and work in our establishments.

“The Scottish Government is delivering investment for our new HMP Glasgow and HMP Highland, which will provide safe and secure accommodation to those in our care, and give the maximum opportunity for successful rehabilitation and positive outcomes.”

The spokesman added that the SPS was “determined” to deliver a transport contract which “meets the needs of those in our care, the Scottish justice system and the country as a whole”.

A GEOAmey spokesperson said: “We note the committee’s recognition that there were significant unforeseen changes to the operating environment of the escorting contract that were outwith the control of justice sector partners and affected our ability to deliver to agreed standards following on from the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We apologise to anyone adversely affected during this challenging period of reduced service performance. Since the recalibration of the contract in partnership with the Scottish Government in December 2023, our shared plan to continuously improve is delivering the expected positive results.

“The committee has recommended that all partners look to continue working together to identify further efficiencies across the escort contract and we look forward to working closely with all justice sector partners to ensure that this positive outcome can be achieved.”

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