Scotland’s prison system is facing considerable risks, including “poor performance” by the company that transports prisoners to and from custody, a report has found.
The Scottish Prison Service (SPS) contracted GEOAmey in 2018 to transfer prisoners in Scotland between prisons, courts, police custody units and healthcare facilities.
But in recent years the company has been unable to recruit the staff needed to deliver the contract – resulting in “significant delays and inefficiencies” across the justice system, Scotland’s public spending watchdog has found.
The Auditor General for Scotland published a report on the challenges facing the SPS on Tuesday.
It found that, although GEOAmey was fined £4m and issued with improvement notices, the impact has been limited.
SPS is said to be taking more direct action, including offering financial support to GEOAmey to aid staff recruitment. These actions are expected to take around six months to take effect.
Audit Scotland warned that, in the meantime, Scotland’s prison population is “rising and becoming more complex”.
The average prison population was around 7,500 in 2022/23. It is forecast to increase to over 8,150 by March 2024.
Audit Scotland said this will put more pressure on the ageing prison estate, which needs significant investment to make it fit-for-purpose.
Stephen Boyle, auditor general for Scotland, said: “The issues facing Scotland’s justice sector are of significant concern and cannot be resolved by the Scottish Prison Service alone.
“It is essential that there is close collaboration between the prison service, the Scottish Government and their justice partners to ensure prison services can be maintained in a safe and secure environment.”
GEOAmey said it noted the auditor general’s findings, including that the contract up to the wake of the Covid pandemic “was being delivered to acceptable levels”.
Since then, service levels have been below satisfactory levels,” a spokesperson for the company said.
“We have consistently acknowledged and accepted that we have undoubtedly contributed to unacceptable delays to court business. We deeply regret this situation, and we once again offer our apologies to our partners across the justice sector in Scotland.”
GEOAmey said that, having updated the contract and improved pay, it had seen an increase in recruitment numbers.
“We are confident that this will lead to further improvements in service delivery and return the contract to strong pre-pandemic performance levels,” the spokesperson said.
A Scottish Prison Service spokesperson said: “We welcome the Auditor General’s report and his focus on some of the challenges we continue to face as an organisation.
“We have a population that is not only rising rapidly but is also increasingly complex. Many of our establishments are full beyond their design capacity, and the oldest prisons are no longer fit for purpose.
“There is an urgent need for the major capital projects planned and these are being undertaken, with support from Scottish Government, in an exceptionally challenging economic climate, with rising costs and supply chain pressures.
“We have worked with GEOAmey, with support from Scottish Government, to recalibrate our contract with them and, while it is still early days, we are seeing positive signs, such as a slowdown in staff attrition and more people working on the contract compared to a few months ago.”
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