Angela Constance has told MSPs she has no plans for an “emergency release” of prisoners due to overcrowding.

However, the Justice Secretary refused to rule out freeing convicts before the end of their sentence to help tackle jail populations.

The comments came after Teresa Medhurst, chief executive of the Scottish Prison Service, told the BBC that overcrowding in prisons is at a “tipping point.”

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“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,” she said.

While she was confident the SPS could manage between now and the springtime, projections for March-April made her “less comfortable.”

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.

Answering a question in Holyrood, Ms Constance admitted that the current prison population was “too high.”

She told MSPs that as of yesterday, there are 7,889 prisoners in Scotland.

Ms Constance added: “We are taking forward a range of actions including making best use of the prison estate, sourcing additional prison places and developing options for greater use of electronic monitoring.

“Vitally, the draft budget includes an additional £14m pounds investment in community justice services and other activity to support increased use of community sentences and alternatives to remand.

“The current population has not increased at the levels anticipated it might. And at 7889 yesterday, it is slightly lower than when I updated parliament in October.”

Conservative Justice Spokesman, Russell Findlay pointed to Ms Medhurst’s warning that emergency powers might be needed to release prisoners, “possibly hundreds, back into Scotland communities before they've served their sentences and with no restrictions whatsoever.”

“This will put the public at risk,” he added. “This would betray crime victims. So will the Cabinet Secretary today rule out any such mass release?”

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Ms Constance said given the current state of the prison population, she had “no plans for emergency release.”

“And on the basis of the numbers, there is no need.”

She added: “A high prison population is not in the interest of prisoners. It is not in the interest of staff working in a prison service. And it is not in the interest of community safety.

“At the end of the day, we all want fewer crimes, fewer victims and less harm in our community. And we need to have the courage to follow the evidence. And that's why we need to shift the balance from an overuse of custody to increasing the use of evidence-based community justice measures.”