McArthur: Prisons at “crisis point” as chief warns operational emergency limit is looming

Scottish Liberal Democrat justice spokesperson Liam McArthur MSP has today demanded the Justice Secretary address the “extremely clear warnings” presented by the Head of the Scottish Prison Service to Holyrood’s Justice Committee that prisons are over capacity and nearing their operational emergency limit.

Chief Executive of the Scottish Prison Service, Colin McConnell, told the Justice Committee that the operational capacity of the Scottish prison estate, which was first exceeded in July 2018, is 7,769.

The population now stands at 8,297, and is continuing towards the operational emergency limit of 8,492.

Mr McConnell also told the committee:

  • The Scottish prison estate is “stretched, strained and stressed”
  • 1,568 cells are holding more than one person, but only half of those cells were designed to hold more than one person.
  • 92% of people in Barlinnie are sharing cells that were designed for one person.
  • Low Moss has replaced 100 beds in single cells with bunk beds to extend capacity.
  • There used to be around 300 people in the community on HDCs at any time – now it’s only 37.
  • The possibility of the “executive release” of prisoners can’t be discounted if any part of Barlinnie becomes no longer operational.
  • Contingency plans for around 500 people could see prisoners on mattresses on the floor.

Liam McArthur commented:

“Scottish prisons are at crisis point. Thousands are being crammed into cells that simply were not designed for more than one. That position is already unsustainable, and the population is only getting bigger.  

“Overcrowding on this scale puts prison staff and inmates at risk. We already know that self-harm and assaults in prison are on the rise.

“We need to see a more concerted effort to bring down the prison population, which is amongst the highest anywhere in Europe. This will involve much greater use of properly resourced community sentences that, all the evidence shows, are more effective at reducing reoffending and keeping our communities safer. The Justice Secretary cannot ignore these extremely clear warnings from SPS.”

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