Scotland’s prisons watchdog has warned huge pressure is being put on jails across the country as rates of overcrowding rise.

The numbers being held in prison rose between April 2018 and 2019 by around 750, heaping pressure on staff.

Prison chiefs have also described rising prison numbers as a 'challenge'. The rate of increase is also causing concern, as Scotland's prison population approaches record levels.

There are currently around 8,200 people incarcerated across Scotland's prison estate, a figure which has risen from 7,600 in just 12 months. At the height of the last overcrowding crisis in 2012, the population reached 8,400.

Wendy Sinclair-Gieben, Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons for Scotland said the figures were concerning. She said overcrowding was making it more difficult to do effective rehabilitation work with prisoners, and could be contributing to rising rates of violence.

“We are really concerned,” she said. “Independent prison monitors are reporting back all the time about the additional pressure this is putting on prisons,

“How can we recruit and retain excellent staff if they are concerned for their own safety”.

Her comments came as she published an updated inspection report on health services at HMP Perth after concerns were raised at an inspection in May last year when they were rated ‘poor’.

When inspectors returned in November they found overcrowding had caused a “critical incident” with health staff struggling to cope.

Rising prisoner numbers and staff shortages meant HMP Perth was relying heavily on inexperienced agency and bank nurses, a report to be published today says.

It praises health and social care partners in Perth and Kinross for devoting time and resources to improving healthcare provision for prisoners.

Wendy Sinclair-Gieben said: "Commendable progress had been made in many of the areas highlighted in the full inspection report. There has been a significant improvement which is very positive."

However the report says inspectors found health staff struggling to cope with the number held in Perth rising from 660 to 705 in a year. This has a knock on effect across the jail, Ms Sinclair-Gieben said.

"That is a significant impact for any health care service to adjust to. If agency nursing staff need mor supervision and more prisoners need more medication that takes time, which takes away from activities like education and employment.".

However Perth is not alone in this, she said. "The pressure applied to the prison service through these numbers is huge. We are really quite concerned about overcrowding across Scotland."

The rising rate of incarceration in Scotland has been significantly affected by a reduction in the use of Home Detention Curfews, which at one time saw 400 people serving sentences at home. Currently only 59 people are on such orders. While there has been no rise in life sentences, those on life terms are serving longer behind bars, while the increase in convictions for historic sexual abuse has contributed to rising prisoner numbers. Earlier this month the Scottish Prison Officers Association (POA) warned of an increase in violence against health workers at HMP Perth and high rates of stress and sickness caused by overcrowding.

Ms Sinclair-Gieben said there was evidence of staff in jails across Scotland raising similar concerns. "There is a distince upward trend in the incidence of violence," she said.

A spokesman for the Scottish Prison Service said significant numbers of prisoners across the estate were now having to share a cell, with HMP Barlinnie in Glasgow currently at 140-150 per cent of its ideal capacity.

Increased numbers make it harder for any prison to do useful rehabilitative work with prisoners, he said. Time spent handling reception of new prisoners and transfers to and from court and managing medications, meant less is avaiable for addressing offending behaviour. "The more people there are the less time there is for staff to do what they might want to do rather than what you have to do," he added.