INMATES may have to be released early from Scotland’s jails within weeks because of an overcrowding crisis, the head of the prison service has warned.

Teresa Medhurst said a “tipping point” was approaching this spring and that “all options would need to be on the table”.

Ms Medhurst told the BBC Disclosure programme that the jails were simply too full, and she may soon be forced to say "enough is enough, we cannot take any more".

Overcrowding was already increasing tensions inside prisons and exacerbating the risk of violence and self-harm, she said.

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There are currently about 8,000 prisoners within the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) but that is projected to rise to 8,700 this year.

Ms Medhurst said if the numbers went above 8,500 the Scottish Government would have to consider releasing hundreds of prisoners without restrictions, as it did during Covid.

The SPS chief executive said: “If I have to say enough is enough then it is because we are at a tipping point. We cannot take any more. Prisons become very unsafe. 

“The atmosphere, the tension, the volatility increases. Levels of violence increase, levels of self-harm increase."

Self-harm in Scottish prisons is up almost 40% in the past year, from 587 incidents to 818.
Ms Medhurst said Police Scotland were looking at how they could divert people away from court and that efforts were being made to tackle the backlog in prisoners on remand.

Record levels of remand prisoners are a key reason behind the overcrowding, with almost a quarter of inmates awaiting trial, partly because of Covid-related court backlogs. 

The Herald: Barlinnie jail in Glasgow

Ms Medhurst also said prisons were looking to double the number of inmates released early on electronic tags to reduce numbers behind bars. 

The SPS is also considering housing inmates in pre-fab housing blocks to increase capacity.

Ms Medhurst said she was “confident” the SPS could manage until the spring, but that  projections for March into April made her "less comfortable" the system could cope.

The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture says that cells shared by prisoners must be above 8m² so as not to be inhuman and degrading. 

However some at HMP Perth, Scotland’s oldest, are less than 7m².

The prison’s capacity of 630 is already being exceeded.

Perth governor Andy Hodge said: "The pressure of population is forcing us to put more people into one room. That's a real stretch. Two adult men into a room where you've got one TV, one kettle, tensions start to build, people start to fall out.

"Violence amongst the residents starts to go up."

He said there was contingency planning which could see the Scottish government beginning an early release scheme if the numbers get too high.

Sarah Armstrong, Professor of Criminology at the University of Glasgow, said Scotland had a higher rate of suicides and drug deaths in jail than England and Wales.  

"I do feel like the state of the prison system right now at this moment is not safe.

Over the last three years there have been suicides in every single prison within Scotland, every single one. That's unusual. I mean, that is not something to be proud of."

Tory MSP Russell Findlay said: “This warning from the head of Scotland's prison service is deeply concerning but comes as no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention to the SNP Government's negligent stewardship of the entire justice system.

"Long overdue new jails in Glasgow and the Highlands are years late and many millions of pounds over budget while the existing estate is falling apart.

“Freeing prisoners who are locked up for good reason is not the answer."

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SNP Justice Secretary Angela Constance said ministers were looking at new legislation, contingency measures and investing in community sentences to try to reduce the prison population.

She said: "I would very much accept that as a consequence of a rising prison population, that that has an impact on progression, it has an impact on rehabilitation. And that is why addressing a rising prison population is also a matter of community safety."

Disclosure: Prisons on the Brink, 8.00 pm, Monday 5 Feb, BBC One Scotland