06:44, July 15 178 0 theguardian.com

2019-07-15 06:44:04
Scotland’s prisons under pressure as inmate numbers rise

Scotland’s prisons are nearly at full capacity, putting undue pressure on inmates and staff, immense strain on budgets and restricting access to rehabilitation.

Despite the Scottish government’s emphasis on “smart justice”, which last month saw the extension of a presumption against short-term sentences to 12 months, some campaigners believe that sentencing policy is becoming more punitive.

The weekly headcount across all Scottish prisons has fluctuated around 8,200 since the start of 2019, reaching 8,222 at the start of July, compared with about 7,400 at the start of 2018.

HM chief inspector for prisons Scotland, Wendy Sinclair-Gieben, said: “The prison system is under significant pressure with more than 700 extra prisoners, which is the equivalent of one large sized prison. The Scottish Prison Service has been obliged to purchase places in two of the private prisons and spend a significant amount on additional staff. The budget pressures are immense.”

Sinclair-Gieben said a key concern was that the SPS would exceed bed capacity if the trend continues to rise above 8,300, putting undue pressure on the staff, regimes and activities available.

Meanwhile, former inmates and families of those still imprisoned have described the day-to-day toll of overcrowding. One recently released inmate of HMP Edinburgh warned that “overcrowding can cause riots”.

He said: “You go to the gym on a certain day but because of the numbers you have less access. With the increased numbers we were locked up nearly 24/7 and that’s what sends people nuts, when they are locked up in four walls.”

The mother of another prisoner said: “They are putting bunk beds into single cells and calling them ‘contingency cells’. Some sex offences remand prisoners are being put in with the general remand population and are therefore not protected.”

Others spoke of the difficulty of family visiting when prisoners were moved to less crowded prisons across the country.

Tom Halpin, chief executive of the community justice organisation Sacro, warned that the over-load reduced the ability of the prison service to rehabilitate. “The current overcrowding in Scottish prisons means the focus is on security and safety,” he said. “Rehabilitation – particularly for those on short sentences ­– is simply not a priority.”

Sinclair-Gieben said the situation could also affect release arrangements: “There is considerable pressure on offender behaviour programmes so progression may be slowed down and therefore parole can be delayed.”

Halpin added he was concerned and disappointed that the Scottish government’s commitment to community justice was not having more of an impact on reducing the prison population. “There is not enough funding for community-based disposals, yet we know that these are much better for offenders’ families, their job prospects and so on.”

A combination of factors have contributed to the steep rise in prisoner numbers, including an increase in the average life sentence, a huge leap in numbers of sex offenders, who also tend to attract longer sentences, as well as more serious and organised crime being successfully prosecuted.

“Sentencing policy has definitely become more punitive,” said Halpin, “it is not the case that people are committing worse crimes. And austerity has led to funding cuts for bail supervision services with the remand prison population now at 20%.”

The SPS acknowledges there has been a steep rise in prison numbers, especially over the past 12 months, and that the system is now under severe strain.

Its head of corporate affairs, Tom Fox, said: “The reality is that people are spending longer in jail now on life sentences than they ever have before.”

“The more people you have, the more difficult it becomes to provide effective intervention and support. We have plenty of alternative disposals [to custody] but they are not making the extent of impact that we’d hope”.

Sinclair-Gieben said she believed the SPS was “coping”, adding: “The levels of violence, self-harm and prison suicide, although rising, have not gone through the roof as they did under similar conditions in the English prison service. I’ve been impressed by the Scottish Prison Service efforts to manage, for example, on the ground staff doing overtime, covering absences and going the extra mile”.

Alex Hewson, of the Prison Reform Trust, said that while the continuing jail population rise was disappointing, he believed Scottish ministers were making bold changes to criminal justice policy compared with the rest of the UK.

“Extending measures to reduce our reliance on ineffective short prison sentences is both a bold and welcome step, but uptake of more effective community alternatives will undoubtedly need time. That justice ministers in Scotland have the opportunity to not only set out their reforms, but to be judged on them as well, greatly increases the likelihood of an eventual outcome that sees safer communities as well as fewer prisoners. It’s something many wish for in England and Wales.”