Barlinnie 'at risk of failure' and HMP Greenock 'should be bulldozed'

The Chief Inspector of Prisons for Scotland made the comments to the Public Audit Committee on Thursday.

Barlinnie at risk of failure and HMP Greenock should be bulldozed, chief prison inspector tells MSPs PA Media

Scotland’s biggest prison is at risk of “catastrophic failure” while another should be “bulldozed”, the Chief Inspector of Prisons for Scotland has said.

Concerns have long been expressed about the state of HMP Barlinnie in Glasgow, with the Victorian-era jail due to be replaced – although the start of construction on a new facility has been pushed back from November 2023 to November 2026, with no firm costings.

Last year, the prison’s governor Michael Stoney made a similar warning.

Appearing before the Public Audit Committee at Holyrood on Thursday, Wendy Sinclair-Gieben called for action from the Scottish Government on the country’s ailing prison estate.

She said: “We have an ageing population, the demographic is very different to where it was 20 years ago.

“We need to accept that is the case and build an estate or manage an estate that is fit for purpose, or reduce our population by looking at community alternatives.

“Barlinnie is overcrowded, I think Barlinnie is at risk of catastrophic failure, you’ve got Greenock which, frankly, should be bulldozed.”

The reality of overcrowding, she added, means prisoners’ access to rehabilitative activities and to positive relationships with staff is reduced and the “risk to society and further victims is increased”.

She said: “For me, I think it is something that this Parliament needs to address and address fast.”

But despite the ailing infrastructure at HMP Greenock, she said it is “one of the best prisons I’ve inspected”.

She added: “Their staff-prisoner relationships are superb, the community relationships are superb, health is good.

“There are many, many aspects of Greenock prison that I think are really wonderful.

“I would love to see another Greenock that is fit for purpose, because Greenock isn’t – it costs a fortune to maintain, it has water ingress, it has real issues.”

The prison estate, the chief inspector said, must be re-thought.

Among her suggestions is the potential creation of a secure care home for older prisoners, removing them from the general prison population and allowing them to receive the requisite care.

Ms Sinclair-Gieben was also vociferous in her praise of prison staff and the prison service, with those who work in Barlinnie in particular able to avoid potential mass unrest due to the conditions in the prison.

“We haven’t had anything like the levels of insurrection that could have been predictable and I think that is down to staff-prisoner relationships,” she said.

She also praised the women’s estate, saying the prison service and the country as a whole should be “so proud of what it has done there”.

Scottish Conservative MSP Jamie Greene said: “The chief inspector’s astonishing comments are a damning indictment of how the SNP have let Scotland’s rat-ridden, Victorian-era prison estate go to rack and ruin.

“Many of Scotland’s jails are simply not fit for the 21st century and the Barlinnie replacement in Glasgow is way behind schedule and drastically over-budget, exacerbating the overcrowding problem and putting staff at risk.

“We are on the precipice of our prisons reaching maximum capacity, which means ministers will either have to mass-release inmates or direct judges not to send people to prison at all.

“Neither will offer any comfort to the public or victims of crime.”

A spokesman for the Scottish Prison Service said: “We have a population which is not only rapidly increasing, but also far more complex.

“That complexity is driven by the increasing proportion of those in our care who have to be accommodated separately due to their legal status, sex, or offending history, and further exacerbated by the increased demand for health and social care services across the prison estate in recent years, partly due to our ageing population.

“We have set out a bold vision for a new HMP Glasgow, which will provide the maximum possible benefit to those who live and work there, and our surrounding communities.

“A programme of work planned to take place at HMP Greenock will improve working and living conditions for our staff and the people in our care. It was pleasing to see the chief inspector recognise the ‘superb’ relationships between staff and those in our care at the establishment.”

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “We are taking a range of actions to address the high prison population.

“This includes making the best use of the current prison estate and sourcing additional prisoner places as well as investing in the increased use of community-based interventions which we know are more effective than short-term imprisonment at reducing reoffending and is backed by £148m for community justice services in 2024/25.

“We are also investing in modernising the prison estate, and recently have opened a new female prison at HMP Stirling and two community custodial units for women.

“Replacements for HMP Inverness and HMP Barlinnie are also being progressed.”

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