PRISON governors have been handed the power to veto prisoners they have concerns over being released early - as plans are pushed forward for up to 450 prisoners to be freed to allow inmates to socially distance in cells.

Only those prisoners who have been sentenced to 18 months or less and who, as of May 4, have 90 days or less left to serve in custody, will be eligible.

The initial proposals already excluded any prisoner convicted of sexual or terrorism offences, imprisoned for life, or subject to a post-release supervision order from being released early.

Now, those who are serving a sentence for a Covid-19 related offence or have recently been imprisoned for domestic abuse will not be eligible for early release.

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Prison governors will be able to veto the early release of prisoners "if they have a concern for the safety" of a member of the public.

Restrictions will also be in place to exclude certain groups of prisoners based on previous offences.

Howard League Scotland, an independent penal reform organisation said the move was a "sensible first step" in a bid to "ease the intolerable pressure in Scotland's prisons and to avert a public health crisis".

The legislation will free up more prison cells, allowing for single-use occupancy to help control the spread of coronavirus.

With the temporary rules in place, prison governors can take further steps to prepare for appropriate individuals to be released gradually over the next 28 days.

Reductions in Scotland’s high prison population will increase the availability of single-cell occupancy - helping to contain the virus.

Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf  has appealed to victims of crime to understand the reasons why the scheme is being implemented but stressed that the move does not "diminish their experience".

He said: “Scotland’s prisons have implemented significant changes in recent weeks, ending family visits and limiting time spent out of cells and I am extremely grateful to the dedication and professionalism of all those working in such challenging environments.

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"By releasing a number of short-term prisoners a few weeks, and at most 90 days, ahead of their due release date, we will ensure there is capacity to safely manage the still large number of people in custody across the prison estate.

“Public protection is paramount and there will be a triple lock set of restrictions."

He added: "Firstly, our emergency legislation already passed by Parliament automatically excludes those in prison for the most serious crimes, including sexual or terrorism offences. Secondly, the subsequent regulations now exclude anyone who is serving a prison sentence for a Covid-19 related offence, or is currently or has recently been imprisoned for domestic abuse. And thirdly, each prison governor will have a veto over the release of any otherwise eligible prisoner if they have a concern for the safety of an identified individual in the community.

“Even with the protections I have outlined, this is not a decision I have taken lightly. I want to assure victims of crime that this does not in any way diminish their experience.

“I and my officials are engaging closely with victims organisations to ensure we continue to meet their needs as best we can in these challenging times. We continue to invest in and support their work, as well as that of police as they too support victims of crime and keep communities safe.”

Conservatives have warned that the move comes with a high degree of risk and have called for the policy to only be rolled out for as long as absolutely necessary.

Liam Kerr, Scottish Conservative justice spokesperson said: “While we understand this tactic is necessary to give prison officers greater protection against this virus, undertaking the early release of up to 450 prisoners while still protecting public safety is a daunting task which is fraught with risk.

“The Scottish Conservatives have consistently argued that in addition to the exclusion of violent offenders and an increase to victim notification, this policy must operate no further and for no longer than required to achieve its goal.

“Crucially, the SNP must ensure local authorities have the resources they need to monitor these criminals and make absolutely certain we are not exchanging one threat to the public for another.”

On Sunday, the Scottish Government announced £1.9 million of funding to support people in prison on prescribed opiate substitution treatment (OST) - with a switch to longer-acting drug, Buvidal.

Budival doses last for either seven or 28 days, relieving the pressure on prison staff to administer treatment.

The Scottish Government has also made £150,000 available to expand residential rehab support to people leaving prison during the pandemic.

Public Health Minister Joe FitzPatrick said: "By making this available to people in prisons, we will support continuity of care, while reducing the need for daily contact and reducing pressure on our front line prison officers and NHS staff.

"Funding to pay for additional residential rehabilitation places will support their recovery and to reduce the pressure on local services."