Prisons 'at risk of breaching human rights' amid calls for urgent action

Holyrood's Public Audit Committee said 'urgent' action was needed by the Government after finding a number of issues within the system.

Scottish prisons ‘at risk of breaching human rights’ as Public Audit Committee report calls for urgent action STV News

Scottish prisons are in crisis and at risk of breaching the human rights of inmates, according to a new report.

Holyrood’s Public Audit Committee said “urgent” action was needed by the Government after finding a number of issues within the system.

The report considers in detail the Scottish Courts Custody Prisoner Escorting Services contract and the Committee say a number of factors have led to current operators GEOAmey failing to deliver the contract as required, leading to an increased risk of contract failure.

The calls come ahead of the release of 550 prisoners at the end of June to help ease pressure of Scotland’s jails.

The committee said the failings in the current system have the potential to breach the human rights of prisoners who are “unable to access healthcare services when required”.

During evidence, the Committee heard that the contract performed as intended before the pandemic but that staffing issues, an increasing prison population with more complex health needs and an increased court capacity aimed at addressing court backlogs all contributed to failures within the contract.

The 46-page report said that the government and prison service could face financial risk from legal challenges by prisoners as a result of the poor conditions.

The Committee added that failures in the delivery of the contract have had an impact on the entire justice sector and the NHS, given the significant costs and time wasted due to court delays and missed healthcare appointments.

Contract failures leading to prisons being understaffed and prisoners unable to access employment and rehabilitation activities are also raised by the Committee.

The report also found that the issues are impacting victims and witnesses who “no longer wish to engage with the prosecution process”.

Following action taken by justice partners, the Committee recognised improvements in GEOAmey’s performance in areas such as the transfer of prisoners to and from courts and Video Identification Parade Electronic Recording appointments in addition to delivering bed watch activities.

However, the report said the performance should be kept under review.

The Committee said that it is “extremely concerned” that the Scottish Prison Service was unable to carry out due diligence on GEOAmey’s reported financial position in Scotland, prior to committing additional public money.

They added: “it is vital that the Scottish Prison Service and the Scottish Government take all necessary steps to mitigate the risk of contract failure and that the contract must be put on a more sustainable footing so any further unnecessary costs to the public purse are avoided”.

On the staffing issues faced by GEOAmey, the report highlights the significant impact GEOAmey’s relatively low rates of pay have had on its ability to recruit and retain staff, and the Committee say any future contract should bear this in mind to avoid similar issues.

Richard Leonard MSP, convener of the Public Audit Committee, said: “Our report is calling for urgent and long-term action to put our prisons and the delivery of services to support them on a more secure footing.

“Whether it’s the deteriorating condition of Scotland’s prison estate, our over-populated prisons or the repeated failures in the delivery of the Scottish Courts Custody Escorting Services contract – it is clear that we are at a crisis point.

“Our report highlights a multitude of issues with the delivery of the prisoner escorting contract and the wider impact this is having, including on human rights related to prisoners’ access to healthcare.

“We are calling for the Scottish Government and the Scottish Prison Service to address our concerns and mitigate the risk of contract failure.

“Our Committee also share the concerns of the Auditor General that the Victorian era prison estate is creating human rights issues which present a live risk for the Scottish Government and the Scottish Prison Service.

“We have recommended an urgent review to ensure that the human rights of prisoners are not being breached.

“The Public Audit Committee recognises the challenges facing Scotland’s prison services. We commend the efforts of frontline staff, particularly at a time when prisoner numbers are at a record high, but it is clear that more must be done to address these challenges and that the time for action is now.”

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