MSPs to grill prison bosses on overcrowding warning

Budget cuts and rising prisoner numbers are contributing to a hostile environment within the SPS.

Warning: Scotland's prisons are running 'well over operating capacity'. <strong>Pixabay</strong>
Warning: Scotland's prisons are running 'well over operating capacity'. Pixabay

Prison bosses are to be questioned about a report that warned Scotland’s jails are a safety risk because they are “running well over operating capacity”.

Budget cuts and rising prisoner numbers and staff workloads are contributing to a hostile environment within the Scottish Prison Service (SPS), according to the report by the Auditor General.

A group of prison bosses have now been called to answer questions at the Scottish Parliament by a committee of MSPs.

The Public Audit Committee will hear from the chief inspector of prisons for Scotland, the director of Serco-run HMP Kilmarnock, Sodexo’s director of custodial operations, and the chair of the Prison Governors Association in Scotland.

The Auditor General’s report for the Scottish Parliament showed there had been “significant” increases in assaults by prisoners against staff, while stress-related sickness among workers had risen by nearly a third in 2018/19.

When the report was published earlier in October, Auditor General Caroline Gardner – who is also due to give evidence to MSPs – said: “Scotland’s prisons are running well over operating capacity.

“The SPS faces a combination of severe pressures on many fronts; this poses a threat to operational safety, effectiveness and financial sustainability.”

The report stated the SPS’s revenue budget had reduced from £394.7m in 2014/15 to £345.2m in 2018/19 – a 12.5% cut in real terms amid rising costs.

Prisoner numbers increased to 8212 in 2018/19 – nearly a 9% rise – with Scotland home to one of the highest imprisonment rates in Europe.

The Scottish Government has blamed capacity issues on a greater focus on serious organised crime and sexual offending, including historical and online cases, while extending the presumption against prison sentences, with Holyrood’s backing.

Justice secretary Humza Yousaf previously said: “The Scottish Government takes very seriously the pressures facing prisons and we have been working closely with the SPS to manage the rising population.

“We have already made additional financial provision available to help SPS meet cost pressures and I will be working with the finance secretary to keep the budget position under review.”

Commenting on the report, Scottish Conservative justice spokesman Liam Kerr said: “This lays bare just how badly the SNP Government has mishandled the prisons system over more than a decade.

“The SNP might shrug its shoulders and say prisons are overcrowded, and therefore a soft-touch agenda must be enacted.

“That’s not good enough. The SNP’s failure to provide sufficient jail capacity should not lead to Scotland’s communities being flooded with dangerous criminals who’ve been released early, or dodged prison altogether.”

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