This article appears as part of the Unspun: Scottish Politics newsletter.

It wasn’t déjà vu, but it was uncanny. Watching Monday’s BBC Disclosure documentary about prison overcrowding in Scotland was a vivid and slightly bewildering sensation.

There was Scottish Prison Service boss Teresa Medhurt warning that numbers were on the rise and a “tipping point” could come in the spring to early summer. 

“All options would need to be on the table,” she said, including the emergency early release of inmates, more electronic tags and prefab housing blocks for overspill accommodation.

There are currently around 8,000 prisoners in Scotland, but the estimates are for perhaps 8,700 later this year, which would constitute unprecedented pressure on the system.

Rehabilitation programmes will suffer, overcrowded wings are more prone to violence, the risk of suicide and self-harm could worsen in the pressure cooker atmosphere.  

And there, in response, was the SNP Justice Secretary Angela Constance, acknowledging the situation and insisting everything had been done to reduce the risk of a crisis.

The next day, in response to a question from Tory MSP Russell Findlay, Ms Constance told Holyrood she had “no plans” for emergency releases but didn’t rule them out.

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“Doing nothing is not an option,” she said, adding: “We of course need to modernise and revamp the [prison] estate.”

It was all spookily familiar, shockingly so. Where had I seen it all before? Just a few weeks ago in the National Records of Scotland.

More precisely, in the cabinet papers for 2008, the SNP’s first full year in government.

Back then, Kenny MacAskill was the SNP justice minister sweating over crowded jails. 

He privately told colleagues he and officials had considered using huts on military bases, boot camps and scrapping jail altogether for certain offences to manage the numbers.

Civil servants had also looked into whether “prison ships” were a goer.

“Other options for reducing prison numbers included placing a cap on prisoner numbers and introducing a system similar to that in Norway, which operated a queueing system for non-violent offenders to serve their sentence, although this could have presentational difficulties,” the cabinet minutes noted.

The Herald: The National Records of Scotland revealed former justice minister Kenny MacAskill dealing with a lot of the same difficulties as the current administrationThe National Records of Scotland revealed former justice minister Kenny MacAskill dealing with a lot of the same difficulties as the current administration (Image: Newsquest)
In the end those “presentational difficulties”, also known as voter anger and opposition apoplexy, scuppered all the plans in combination with cost and legal problems. 

The cabinet settled instead for greater use of home detention curfews and electronic tags, with emergency powers for early release as a backstop.

In the event, the prison numbers mercifully defied expectation and came down again. 

HMP Addiewell also came into service, creating another 700 or so places.

And yet, 16 years later and with the same party continually in office, here we go again.

The same problem - too many prisoners, too little space – and the same solutions touted in desperation. Everything has been done to avert a crisis, says Ms Constance. Yeah, right.

There have been changes, of course, most noticeably on the supply side, with the SNP pushing often unpopular steps to cut the number of people going to prison in the first place.

A presumption against short sentences of less than three months was put into law in 2010 and then extended to a presumption against sentences below 12 months in 2019.

The system has also been thrown for a loop by the Covid pandemic, which created a huge backlog in trials for serious and complex cases, leading to a surge in the number of people held in prison on remand, awaiting their day in court.

More than a quarter of all prisoners – and more than a third of female inmates – are now on remand, and may never be convicted.

But the government has failed miserably to build. Prisons make ferries look good.

The new high security HMP Highland in Inverness is set to open five years late and come in three times over budget, while HMP Glasgow, the replacement for Barlinnie, is likely to be five times over budget and around a decade late – if ministers ever get round to it. 

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Home to around a fifth of Scotland’s prisoners, Barlinnie is a key limiter on numbers in the system, because if its crumbling Victorian infrastructure suffered a major fault, there would be no room to decant all its inmates elsewhere. The prison service would have to scramble to rehouse the most dangerous, with others inevitably being released.

SNP ministers knew in 2008 that the system was decrepit and they failed to fix it, and so 16 years later the same predictable problems are back to haunt them. It’s criminal.