'Veto' for prison governors over early release of up to 450 prisoners to tackle COVID-19 crisis in jails
The Scottish Government is set to start the process of releasing up to 450 prisoners from jail over the next 28 days in an attempt to tackle to COVID-19 crisis in the justice system.
Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf announced a ‘triple-lock’ set of restrictions to the plans to release prisoners, including a ‘veto’ over the release of individual prisoners for prison governors.
Recent or current domestic abuse offenders, those convicted of sexual or other serious crimes such as terrorism, and those behind bars for COVID-19 related offences will be excluded from the scheme.
However, up to 450 prisoners will be considered for early release, provided they have fewer than 90 days left of their sentence to serve from 4 May and have been sentenced to a maximum of 18 months in jail.
Other restrictions include a veto for prison governors to use if they believe the release of a prisoner could present an immediate danger to a named individual.
Those with non-harassment orders are also excluded from the scheme and the release of prisoners will be staggered over the next four weeks.
The Victim Notification Scheme, where victims are told about an offender's release, has been extended to cover this scheme.
The Scottish Government will also work with councils and third-sector organisations to help ensure a smooth transition for released prisoners.
The move, which comes as 37 people in custody across 11 of Scotland’s jails isolate with coronavirus symptoms, are aimed at reducing the possibility of a dangerous outbreak by allowing for single-cell occupancy.
The Scottish Prison Service hope that single-cell occupancy will help contain the virus and make prisons safer for inmates, prison officers and visiting NHS staff.
Mr Yousaf said the release of prisoners will allow for capacity to be kept high enough to manage the existing prison population if there was a serious outbreak of COVID-19.
He said: “By releasing a number of short-term prisoners a few weeks, and at most 90 days, ahead of their due release date, we will ensure there is capacity to safely manage the still large number of people in custody across the prison estate.
“Public protection is paramount and there will be a ‘triple lock’ set of restrictions. Even with the protections I have outlined, this is not a decision I have taken lightly. I want to assure victims of crime that this does not in any way diminish their experience.
“I and my officials are engaging closely with victims organisations to ensure we continue to meet their needs as best we can in these challenging times. We continue to invest in and support their work, as well as that of police as they too support victims of crime and keep communities safe.
“We are also extending the Victim Notification Scheme to ensure that victims who are registered with the scheme will be notified about the early release of a prisoner.
“In these exceptional circumstances, I continue to take the actions I consider will best reduce the prospect of harm both in Scotland’s prisons and in the wider community of which they are part.”
Scottish Labour's justice spokesperson, James Kelly, called for all prisoners due to be released to be tested for COVID-19 prior to release.
He said: “Overcrowding in Scotland’s prisons is a serious health concern for both staff and prisoners, and there is already a high level of absences from prison workers.
“The concern that overcrowded conditions could exacerbate the spread of COVID-19 in prisons is valid, and steps to prevent that, including the safe early release of short term prisoners, should be taken.
“As a matter of welfare prisoners should be tested for COVID-19 prior to release. Support needs to be provided to ensure the safe progress of prisoners into the community. It is particularly essential that no prisoners are left in a position where they are homeless.”
Liam Kerr, Scottish Conservative shadow justice secretary, said: “While we understand this tactic is necessary to give prison officers greater protection against this virus, undertaking the early release of up to 450 prisoners while still protecting public safety is a daunting task which is fraught with risk.
“The Scottish Conservatives have consistently argued that in addition to the exclusion of violent offenders and an increase to victim notification, this policy must operate no further and for no longer than required to achieve its goal.
“Crucially, the SNP must ensure local authorities have the resources they need to monitor these criminals and make absolutely certain we are not exchanging one threat to the public for another.”
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