THOUSANDS of prisoners are being freed from jail by prison bosses “ignoring” a new law intended to cut down on reoffending.

Figures obtained by The Herald on Sunday show that, over the last three years, just 15 people have benefited from legislation that aims to give prisoners better access to vital support if they are due for release on a Friday.

A charity chief claims innocent members of the public will have become victims of crime as a result of the failure of the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) to take advantage of the law, while SPS says it “just hasn’t been required”.

The Prisoners (Control of Release) (Scotland) Act 2015 was intended to give those due for release on a Friday the ability to be let out of jail one or two days early, giving them a better chance to access support such as housing or medical services.

These services, experts say, are crucial to reduce reoffending rates as some prisoners deliberately commit crimes to go back into custody if they are left without food, medication or shelter on release.

According to figures obtained by this newspaper, just 15 prisoners have had their release brought forward under the Act since it was introduced in February 2016, 17 have been refused early release and 11,054 inmates have been released on a Friday.

The SPS said the legislation, brought in by former justice secretary Michael Matheson, “just hasn’t been required”.

Pete White, who founded the recently-closed charity Positive Prisons? Positive Futures, has criticised the SPS for failing to use the law heralded by politicians and experts as a positive step to reduce reoffending.

He was one of a group of experts to suggest the changes during a meeting with former justice minister Kenny MacAskill in 2013.

White said: “I am utterly appalled at this tiny number of people released one or two days early, out of the more than 11,000 released on a Friday. We must think about the number of people who will have been harmed as victims of crime, because people were released on a Friday and have reoffended just to get back into custody as they have nowhere to go and no access to the services they needed.

“The prison service should hang their heads in shame because they have contributed to that reoffending.

“I do not know how they have the nerve to do absolutely nothing about the opportunity this might offer.

“The rate of suicide, self-harm and reoffending as well as overdose for people released on a Friday is far higher than any other day of the week. Anything that can be done to help people move away from offending should be taken with both hands and be promoted with vigour.

“For the prison service to talk about ‘unlocking potential and transforming lives’ is absolute rubbish.”

The charity founder claimed that internal problems within SPS were partly to blame for the failure to apply the law, explaining some staff “are scared of being seen to be nice or helpful to prisoners”.

He said: “[Middle management] have got in the way. Colin McConnell (SPS chief executive) has gone from being bold and imaginative to being huddled in a corner. This is clearly an easy thing they could do to improve outcomes and reduce reoffending and it’s not being done.”

Evidence presented by the Government at the time the legislation was being debated stated: “The current level of reoffending has significant implications for public services and the public purse.

“Release on the days preceding weekends and public holidays is consistently raised as a key barrier to plugging the gap between receipt of support in custody and access to wider services in the community.

“The ability of prisoners to be able to access key public services such as housing, welfare and addictions advice on the day they are released can be critical in helping people desist from further offending.

“This problem can become even more acute when release is immediately preceding weekends or public holidays.”

Social justice campaigners south of the Border have previously called on prisons in England and Wales to follow Scotland’s lead in allowing prisoners to be released early. However, the Ministry of Justice said it did not see the value in such a change.

In November 2016, former MSP Douglas Ross asked the First Minister why just one prisoner had benefited from the new law in the 10 months since it was introduced.

At the time, Sturgeon told the Conservative MSP for the Highlands and Islands: “It certainly sounds as if we should look into that issue further.” She said: “The reason for the policy … is to help prisoners, on their release, to reintegrate and access services in the community, which is an important part of trying to reduce reoffending. I give an undertaking to the member to look into the issue.”

Liam Kerr, the Scottish Conservatives’ justice spokesman, said: “This policy should be easy to implement yet, almost four years after the legislation was brought in, flexible release has only been approved 15 times.

“It is particularly strange that the SNP, who normally try to empty our prisons at every opportunity, has not ensured that this policy is properly executed, despite evidence lacking from some of their other initiatives, that it could cut reoffending.

“In the two years since Humza Yousaf became Justice Secretary, crime has increased for the second year in a row, prisons are crumbling and the Scottish Police Federation have raised concerns that our Force are about to run out of money.

“The SNP likes to make big promises, but this record shows they and their Justice Secretary appear to have achieved very little.”

Labour’s justice spokesman James Kelly said: “Humza Yousaf needs to urgently review the failure of the flexible release policy.

“The policy needs to be implemented properly to help tackle the cycle of reoffending, ease the overcrowding crisis in Scottish Prisons and keep our communities safe.

“With Scotland’s prisons bursting at the seams, we should be taking all practical steps to reduce reoffending.

“That means doing everything we can to ensure that people leaving prison are not being set up to fail.

“There is clear evidence that Friday releases increase the chance of reoffending. That reduces capacity and puts even more financial pressure on a prison service that is already in crisis.

“It is now clear that the SNP Government’s flexible release policy is being ignored by prison authorities.”

Scottish Liberal Democrat justice spokesperson Liam McArthur MSP added: “The prison population has spiralled to such a level that bosses have had to shut down critical rehabilitation services. Now we learn that a mechanism to help people get a roof over their heads and access critical services within hours of release is being ignored too.

“This had the potential to help thousands of people make a smoother return to the community and avoid falling back into chaotic lifestyles, but for all the Scottish Government’s fanfare only a handful have benefited.

“Scottish Liberal Democrats also want to see the expansion of throughcare services, alongside new measures to ensure people have a bank account and their social security eligibility assessed before leaving prison so they aren’t abandoned at the gate.”

SPS governors are responsible on behalf of Scottish ministers for applying for early release. However, a spokesman said the law, which took three years to implement, had “just not been required”.

He said: “If somebody was getting out on a Friday the social security office wasn’t open, they would get out before that to allow them access. There is work done in prison with agencies like housing to make sure appointments are set up with people coming out.

“Friday has the highest number of releases anyway because if your sentence expires on a Saturday or Sunday you get out on the Friday. The power to let people out early if there is an assessed risk is there. Referrals tend to come from social work, if they raise it as a concern with the prison. The prison has the power to do that and make the arrangement.

“The power hasn’t been used much because it just hasn’t been required.”

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “Flexible release arrangements can be agreed on a case by case basis by the Scottish Prison Service to bring forward the date of release of a prisoner by up to two days, where an organisation makes the case that this change would substantially improve the opportunity for them to help an individual to reintegrate successfully after their release.

“This legislation was never intended to result in a blanket ban on Friday releases, although we recognise in certain circumstances they can present problems. It is an option among a range of other actions that are regularly being taken, by the Scottish Prison Service and third sector organisations, to help an individual’s reintegration.

“In 2017, the SPS reviewed how this legislation was being used, and then established an online application process to make it easier for applications to be made, and refreshed guidance to advise organisations how best to apply.

“We will keep in contact with the SPS, and keep the use of this process under review – alongside the wider improvements to reintegration support.”