Urgent action is needed to prevent “almost inevitable” overcrowding in Scottish prisons as the justice system recovers after the covid-19 crisis, a prison watchdog has warned.

Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons Wendy Sinclair-Gieben claims a “worrying” rise in the number of people being remanded in custody during the pandemic a major concern – particularly as the country’s court system begins to deal with a large backlog of cases.

Referring to figures showing a jump of 600 in remand prisoners between April and July, she said changes need to be made quickly to reduce the numbers ahead of the influx of convicted prisoners once the courts reopen more fully.

The increase has also prompted a call for action from justice groups who are concerned about the impact on accused people and their families as they face being locked up for longer awaiting trial.

The Scottish Government said it was working with justice agencies to look at ways of reversing the trend, including the use of electronically monitored bail.

Ms Sinclair-Gieben told The Herald: “The remand population is rising to such an extent that it worries me.

“The proportion of remand prisoners to ordinary prisoners is huge and growing. The reality is that something like 24% of the prison population is on remand, more than double the level in England. This is really quite shocking.

“I am aware that the Scottish Government... are frantically looking at alternatives to custody and how that can be managed.

 “However, I really worry that the quantity of remands and the resumption of court activity means that overcrowding is almost inevitable if they don’t find alternatives to custody fast.”

A report published by the Scottish Government this week showed that the number of prisoners on remand has “grown significantly” from a low of 1,114 in April to 1,718 in July.

Overall, prisoner numbers are down thanks to a combination of an early release programme, which has seen almost 350 prisoners released due to the virus, and the downturn in court business.

However, it is beginning to rise again, fuelled by remand cases, and will continue to grow as the courts gradually start up again and sentences are passed.

Concerns about the country’s use of remand, especially when compared to other jurisdictions, have been ongoing for a number of years.

A 2018 parliamentary report found that the overwhelming view of experts within the justice system was that, while the use of remand is necessary in certain circumstances, it is used too frequently.

Data also suggests that a large number of remand prisoners either do not receive a custodial sentence or are released after trial having already served their time.

It is understood that the bail appeal court is considering the impact of Covid-19 on the progress of cases when deciding whether or not to remand an accused.

However, penal reform charity Howard League Scotland claims the current situation means it is even harder to justify remand.

A spokeswoman for the charity said: “Remanding in custody during prison lockdown represents an additional level of punishment. Remand can be a very vulnerable time for people, and subjecting them to lockdown conditions, with very little time out of cells, is even harder to justify when so many of them are yet to even stand trial and there is a backlog in the courts.

“The overuse of remand in Scotland has been highlighted by the Scottish Parliament Justice Committee over recent years, and we are aware there is Scottish Government commissioned research examining remand on a national level, which is ongoing.

“However, we need more and immediate action, whether that be a presumption against remand in certain cases, and / or an urgent funding and provision of services to support bailing in the community. We also draw attention to the option of using electronic monitoring in bail, which could be enabled through secondary legislation.”

Pete White, former CEO of prison rights charity Positive Prison ? Positive Future, added that the current “thrombosis” in remand has been aggravated by an ongoing problem with a lack of use of “viable alternatives”.

“Scotland has an increasingly effective number of community based alternatives to prison sentences for those found guilty after trial which are also suitable for use as an alternative to remand,” he said.

He and Ms Sinclair-Gieben also both raised concerns about the ability of the prison estate to cope if prisoner numbers swell.

Mr White said: “By sending more people to prison on remand while none are returning to court for sentencing, pressure is being built within the prison system for which it is ill-equipped and not prepared.

“The backlog of cases was bad enough, but now things will only get worse if the use of remand continues unabated. And this at a time when it is acknowledged that the levels of crime in Scotland dropped during lockdown.”

Ms Sinclair-White said it is particularly worrying for older prisons, such as Barlinnie, which “are no longer fit for purpose to manage that level of overcrowding”.

The prison inspector added that addressing the issue is a “top priority” for everyone involved in the justice system, especially due to the ongoing need to reduce the risk of transmission of Covid-19 within the prison estate.

A Scottish Government spokesman said: ““While granting bail or remand is a matter for the courts, we note the concerns raised at the recent rise in remand numbers and are working with justice stakeholders to explore what measures we can introduce to reverse that trend.

“We have taken a number of actions in the past year to provide alternatives to remand, including updated national guidance and additional funding of £1.65 million over three years for the expansion of supervised bail. We are also expanding the use of electronic monitoring and considering the viability of electronically monitored bail.

“To deal with the backlog of cases, we are working with the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service and other partners to explore options that safeguard both the interests of justice and the health of all involved.”

A Judicial Office for Scotland spokeswoman said: “In considering whether or not to remand an accused person in custody in a particular case, the judge must take into account what is put to the Court by the Crown and by the defence; and must take into account the unique facts and circumstances of the case and of the accused.”