'HMP Perth is overcrowded but early prisoner release gives us breathing space'

The governor of Perth prison cautions that big overcrowding challenges remain despite introduction of emergency measures.

The governor of HMP Perth says the prison has been given some “breathing space” as a result of prisoners being released from their sentences early.

Andy Hodge says the overcrowding situation at the prison is “better than it was” but cautioned that the Scottish Government’s measures only provided short-term relief.

The first tranche of Scottish prisoners being released early due to overcrowding fears left jail cells earlier this month.

In total, more than 500 prisoners will have leave before serving their full sentence after legislation was passed at Holyrood last month.

It comes after a spike in inmate numbers and concerns that capacity of prison estates are at “critical risk”.

Hodge said: “It’s giving us breathing space – it’s short-term relief but it has given us some breathing space.

“Our numbers were up at 705 – our design capacity is 631 – so we declared red status. We were one of the jails that were running hot, because we are an admission jail – we take from Perth and Kinross, Dundee, Angus and Fife – we’ve got to have spaces every night for the courts.

“That’s very, very challenging for us on a daily basis. We are 675 (prisoners) this morning, so we’re still high in terms of capacity. We’re getting to the point where it’s difficult, it’s challenging but this relief was really welcomed by governors in charge.

“It’s not just about bed space, it’s about the population and population types. It’s about having to double two adult men up in one room, it’s about remand, short-term, long-term, offence protections, non-offence protections – it’s very challenging and not only that but trying to run four regimes in one hall, that all takes time and it really sweats the assets.

“We’re running flat out, staff are working flat out every day and every shift.

“Our remand numbers are very, very high and they have went up since the start of Covid and have struggled to come down, so remand (prisoners) are a very real challenge.

“We’re sitting at just under 300 remand today; pre-Covid we were just under 200, so it is a real challenge and it is something that needs looked at.”

HMP Perth.STV News

‘I have used my veto’

More prisoners will be released in three further waves over the next few weeks.

Only those already due for release within the next six months after serving a sentence of less than four years can be released early meaning around 550 inmates are eligible.

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

And Hodge told STV News he had already used his veto to prevent a prisoner from being released early.

He said: “I think the work that has been put into the early release has been really good.

“There is set criteria (for establishing whether a prisoner should be released early) – I’m looking at risk to individual, risk to groups of people; I’m looking at behaviours in prison, I’m looking at Police Scotland information, intelligence, so there are a number of sources of information that I’m looking at as part of that veto.”

The Scottish Government has been wrestling with a rising prison population in recent months, with a programme of early release currently under way for more than 500 inmates.

Furthermore, a consultation published on Monday showed that long-term prisoners in Scotland could be released after serving two-thirds of their sentence.

The consultation revealed some prisoners could be allowed out under licence after serving two-thirds of their sentence; this would be a return to the policy from before February 2016.

Currently, prisoners are eligible to be released under licence six months from the end of their sentence.

Those who are given an extended sentence – where a court enforces a period in prison followed by supervision after release – will also not be eligible.

Teresa Medhurst, chief executive of the Scottish Prison Service, said just over 240 individuals had been released early from their sentences so far.

Teresa Medhurst.STV News

She said: “The partnership-working at local level and national level is really strong, there’s a lot of support arrangements been put in place – not just with statutory organisations but with our third sector partners as well, so really it has gone as well as we could have anticipated.

“The numbers are still sitting over 8,000 – when they come below 8,000 that will be very welcome but this was always going to be a short-term temporary measure in order to ease some of the pressures that we were experiencing because earlier in the year we anticipated reaching around 8,500 over the summer and we would not have been able to cope with that.

“We should come below 8,000. I would anticipate that we should achieve somewhere in the region of about 7,800 and that would be a much healthier operating position for us than sitting over the 8,000 mark.

“With regards to reoffending rates, there is a lot of evidence that tells us short-term sentences in particular are not as beneficial as community disposals, so I think there is a discussion to be had around about that. I do think that comparing the emergency release arrangements for Covid to just now is probably not helpful, given that the circumstances people were being released into at that time were quite markedly different from the circumstances they will experience today.”

Why are prisoners being released early?

The Scottish Government says action is needed to address the impacts of an unprecedented rise in the country’s prison population.

It has increased by around 400 in the past few months, and 13% since the beginning of 2023.

Victims of crime are being asked to register for a notification scheme, or support organisations, to be told when their offender is released.

How many prisoners are being released?

Around 514 prisoners will be released in four tranches.

  • Those with less than 45 days left to serve will be released on Wednesday and Thursday.
  • Those with 45-89 days left to serve will be released on July 3/4.
  • Those with 90-134 days left to serve will be released on July 10/11.
  • Those with 135-180 days left to serve will be released on July 17/18.
  • All of the prisoners identified for early release will be out of prison by July 25.

Are any safeguards built into the scheme?

Yes, the following safeguards have been built in:

  • Only prisoners serving short sentences of under four years who have 180 days or less left to serve will be considered for release
  • Prisoners such as those given a life sentence, or serving a sentence for sexual offences or domestic abuse, will be automatically excluded
  • Prison governors will have the power to veto the release of any prisoner they deem an immediate risk to a specific individual or group

‘This is a shambolic solution to a shambolic problem’

The chief executive of Sisco, a charity that supports men and women from inside the prison, said the plan to release prisoners early is ‘a shambolic solution to a shambolic problem’.

Natalie Logan told STV News the charity doesn’t have the resources to pick up the 500 men and women earmarked to leave early.

“We can only imagine Glasgow’s going to have some of the highest numbers coming back into our locality,” she said.

“We absolutely cannot cope. We are overwhelmed at the moment. There have been no finances put into this. There has been no contingency plans to Sisco or communications to ask can you meet the demand in the community?

“We’ve got 32 existing partners across the board in every locality and they have the same fear. They don’t have resources, they don’t have the funding, they don’t have capacity, they don’t have accommodation. We are setting people up to fail and we’re wasting taxpayers money.”

“I think if you’ve got 500 people going back into localities and we know how difficult it is to get a GP appointment, potentially 400 of these people are going to be on medication that they need every single day.

“We don’t have 400 doctors available to see them on that day. We don’t have 400 care managers that can pull themselves from another crisis client to work with someone come out prison. We don’t have resources across the board.

“We have got men and women leaving prisons that we’re having to pay hostels for overnight because there is no accommodation, there is nothing.”

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