ALMOST 500 prisoners could be let out early from next week in order to ease pressure on Scotland’s prisons caused by coronavirus.

Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf announced the measure at Holyrood, acknowledging it was “a difficult decision for some, including victims of crime”.

However he told MSPs it was necessary in “these exceptional and unprecedented times”, and that prisons were “an especially challenging environment” at present for prisoners, prison officers, NHS staff and others who worked there.

He estimated 300 to 450 prisoners sentenced to less than 18 months would be considered for early release, with the scheme limited to those with 90 days or less to serve on April 30.

Some, but not all, could be placed on home curfew with electronic tags.

Scotland’s prison population is currently around 7500.

Mr Yousaf said the measure would help prison and healthcare staff safely manage other prisoners as the outbreak affected the prison estate. 

Regulations are to be laid before Parliament so that release can start from next week. 

Prisoners imprisoned for life or with convictions for sexual offences, domestic abuse or terrorism offences will not be eligible for early release.

Mr Yousaf told MSPs that the Victim Notification Scheme would be changed so that victims and their families would be if a criminal who had affected their life was being released.

He said: “I understand that this will be a difficult decision for some, including victims of crime

“This in no way diminishes the harm they have suffered but in these exceptional and unprecedented times, we must take difficult decisions that best reduce the risk of further harm.

“I am mindful that this decision will not be universally popular, however, let me be clear, it is my judgment that it is the right course of action for the safety of those who work in our prisons as well as for those in our care.

“It is at times like these that we must act in recognition of our obligations to all those in our society including those that live and work in our prisons and I believe this action is necessary, is proportionate and is the right action for a responsible government to take.”

He added: “Using these emergency release powers, combined with increasing those on Home Detention Curfew (electronic tags) will substantially increase the availability of single-cell accommodation across the prison estate, which in turn will help the Scottish Prison Service contain the spread of Coronavirus in our prisons. 

“In addition, the resulting reduction in the prison population will allow the prison service to ease restrictions put on prisoners during these challenging times.”

Family visits have already been suspended in jails because of Covid-19, with prisoners also more limited in their activities and confined to their cells for more of the day.

Mr Yousaf added: “We must help staff to manage prisons in a sustainable way over the weeks and months ahead. 

“This latest step – based on the emergency powers passed by MSPs earlier this month – will give them greater capacity to help ensure a safe custodial environment.

“The SPS is working to increase numbers on Home Detention Curfew, however the capacity for HDC is limited by the current lockdown and social distancing measures. 

“It is clear we must use emergency release powers over and above HDC.


“This is not a decision that I have taken lightly, and I want to assure the victims of crime that this does not diminish what they have suffered. 

“In these exceptional circumstances, I must consider actions that best reduce the prospect of further harm both in prisons and the wider community of which they are part.”

The move, which echoes similar steps elsewhere in the UK and Europe, was broadly welcomed at Holyrood.

Labour MSP James Kelly said: "It has been a real concern that the overcrowded conditions that exist on the Scottish Prison Estate could exacerbate the spread of Covid-19.

"As well as being a serious health concern for both staff and prisoners, the current numbers overburden staff who are already facing high absence levels amongst their colleagues.

"It is therefore the correct decision to release prisoners who are approaching the end of their sentence - provided they pose no risk to the public.

"However, it is also vital that a proper process and provisions are put in place to ensure that prisoners who are released have no risk of transferring the virus back into their communities.

"It is also essential that proper support is provided to those who are re-entering wider society. In particular, it is crucial that no person who is released will be homeless."

Liberal Democrat MSP Liam McArthur said: "Making decisions like these, in the context of a pandemic, is an unenviable position to be in. It’s all the more difficult because of where we started. Scotland’s prisons were in crisis before COVID-19.

"We can't just shift that burden to other under pressure services like GPs and housing, so there needs to be a proper support package accompanying emergency release. 

“This is important to avoid reoffending and protect the rights of victims."

Green MSP John Finnie said: “The Scottish Government has had a difficult task to consider the rights and needs of victims, prisoners, staff and families, but this decision to go ahead with limited early release is the right one, with some important exceptions for public safety. 

“Apart from anything else, we simply don’t have enough cells for inmates to self-isolate.

“However, it is vital those released are given a safe landing going home, and for their families. Many prisoners are released with no home to go to, and as well as housing and financial assistance, individuals often need support with addictions and both physical and mental health issues. This is even more important in the current crisis.

“Families who are already under pressure will also need support if someone suddenly returning home can add to difficulties.”

Lawyer Aamer Anwar welcomed the move to cut the prison population. 

He said: “Prisons have been described as a ‘petri dish’ in which the outbreak of the virus will have devastating consequences.

“It has been now over three weeks since the lockdown came into effect, up to a quarter of prison staff have had to self-isolate, this has had a significant impact on safety but also the well-being of prisoners. 

“The SPS does not have the luxury of time and must move swiftly before any more lives are lost.

 “At a time that the Government is expecting members of the public to observe laws and guidance on social distancing, it would be unacceptable for that not also to apply to prisons. Single cell occupancy must the only option during this pandemic, if the health, safety and welfare of prisoners is truly paramount.

“For those concerned about the risk that prisoner release poses to members of the public, important caveats are attached which stops the release of sex offenders, domestic abusers or those sentenced for terror offences.”