Scottish prisons: Government plans to release prisoners serving sentences under four years

The Scottish Government is proposing releasing prisoners serving sentences under four years to tackle overcrowding

Fears have been voiced over the “risk to the public” as the Scottish Government confirmed it would seek the emergency early release of hundreds of prisoners due to a spike in numbers putting the prison estate at “critical” levels.

Justice secretary Angela Constance announced on Thursday the Government was planning to release some prisoners who are serving sentences of under four years due to “critical” overcrowding.

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She said no one serving sentences for sexual offences or domestic abuse would be released early, but stressed the emergency action was “necessary”. Up to 500 prisoners who have 180 days or less left to serve may be considered for early release.

Prison governors will have the power to veto the release of any prisoner they deem an immediate risk to a specific individual or group.

The number of prisoners in Scotland has increased “sharply” by 400 since March 18 to 8,348 overall, including a rise of 13 per cent since the start of 2023.

Sharon Dowey, the Scottish Conservatives’ deputy justice spokeswoman, said: “Victims will not have been reassured by Angela Constance’s responses in relation to the risk posed to the public when these offenders are ultimately released back into our communities.”

Ms Constance said the recent spike in numbers meant capacity was now “extremely limited” and multiple prisons were “essentially full”.

This overcrowding means the Scottish Prison Service is unable to properly rehabilitate prisoners, hold prison visits or ensure prisoners can access NHS services. The prison service is now looking to add more temporary accommodation for prisoners, but she said this was “not a quick fix”.

Other steps include introducing electronically-monitored bail, ending imprisonment for under-18s, and more prisoners being released on compassionate grounds.

There are six prisons in Scotland graded at red status - the highest level of risk. These include HMP Barlinnie, the biggest prison in the country.

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Speaking in Holyrood, Ms Constance said: “Despite all the steps underway, however, it is increasingly clear that further action is required. The measures I’ve described will simply not have as large an impact as is necessary to avert a crisis.

“And be in no doubt, that is what we are facing - if our prisons are to remain functional and able to house the most dangerous offenders, we have no choice but to take urgent action to reduce pressure on the estate.”

If MSPs agree, legislation to allow ministers to release prisoners early in “emergency situations” will come into effect on May 26.

Ms Constance added: “My hope was this would never need to be used. However, as things stand today, my view is that we have reached the threshold for taking emergency action. My intention is that those released would be serving sentences of under four years.

“Public safety will always be my priority, and I can reassure Parliament that there are protections in place so that no one serving a sentence for sexual offences or domestic abuse will be released, with a governor veto available.

“This is not a decision I take lightly and I appreciate the concerns it will raise. But we must ensure the safety and wellbeing of Scottish Prison Service staff and those in their care, and that our prisons continue to function effectively to accommodate those who pose the greatest risk of harm.”

The justice secretary said no prisoner would be released without parliamentary approval, and the Government would look over the summer into changing how long-term prisoners are released.

Ms Dowey said: “Now their only answer is using emergency powers to release prisoners, which they previously said they did not want to ever use. Every prisoner is behind bars for good reason following a robust and independent judiciary process.

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“The SNP’s justice secretary must be fully transparent as this situation unfolds and reassure the public that there is no risk to them from this decision.”

The Prison Officers’ Association said the decision reflected the “state of crisis” in Scotland’s prisons, with the organisation stressing it was “pleased” to hear the justice secretary recognising this.

Phil Fairlie, assistant secretary of the association, said the decision was “not an easy or straightforward fix”, but that prison staff now needed reassurance they would be supported.

He said: “From our point of view, it is absolutely crucial that these steps are supported to give our prisons and prison officers the breathing space and support they so badly need right now.

“The real test now will be in seeing that support being replicated in approving these measures across the Parliament, and letting prison staff know that their voice is being heard.”

The UK government recently announced it was introducing a presumption against short sentences, the early removal of foreign nationals, and extending the early release scheme so some prisoners were released up to 70 days early to tackle similar overcrowding problems.

In the 2024/25 budget, there was a 10 per cent increase in the Scottish Prison Service’s resources budget and £148 million was allocated for community justice.

This comes after Wendy Sinclair-Gieben, HM Chief Inspector of Prison, said immediate action was needed to tackle the soaring prison population. She said overcrowding was a risk to the wider population because the prison service was now too stretched to properly rehabilitate prisoners.

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Katy Clark, Scottish Labour’s deputy spokesperson on community safety, called for electronic monitoring systems to be upgraded as she asked for assurances that no violent offenders would be released early.

A Scottish Prison Service spokesman said: “Our population, which was already very high and extremely complex, has increased rapidly in the past few weeks, in a way which was not anticipated.

“This is a critical challenge putting significant pressure on our staff, our establishments, those in our care and our partners.

“The Cabinet Secretary’s statement set out her legislative priorities and how she intends to engage with MSPs across the Parliament to reach agreement on reducing the prison population.

“We stand ready to work with the Scottish Government and our partners to act upon the decisions reached, as we continue our focus on supporting our staff, those in our care, their rehabilitation and Scotland’s communities.”

Earlier this year Teresa Medhurst, chief executive of the Scottish Prison Service, said the service would soon have to say it could not take in any more prisoners because they were too overcrowded.

She said if numbers went above 8,500, then the Scottish Government would have to consider releasing hundreds of prisoners with no restrictions, similar to measures taken during the coronavirus pandemic.



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