Overcrowding in Scotland’s prisons has led to a significant drop in the number of “purposeful activity” hours being offered to inmates, new figures have revealed.

The Scottish Liberal Democrats have warned of a “vicious cycle” with prisoners reoffending because they have been deprived of education and training while inside that would help them rehabilitate.

Liam McArthur, the party’s Justice Spokesman, has urged the SNP-Green government to “urgently publish a route map with milestones for increasing the provision of throughcare support and purposeful activity.”

READ MORE: Barlinnie 'at risk of catastrophic failure' - Scotland's prison chief

The Scottish Prison Service (SPS) defines purposeful activity as “any activity or constructive interaction which promotes citizenship; develops learning and employability skills; builds life skills and resilience; addresses well-being; and motivates personal engagement with both prison and community-based services.”

Figures uncovered by the Lib Dems through Freedom of Information show that between 2016/17 and August 2023 there has been a 25% drop in the number of purposeful activity hours in Scotland’s largest prison, Barlinnie.

In 2016, inmates in the Glasgow jail received 16 hours of purposeful activity. That dropped to 10 hours in 2020/21 before coming back up to 13 hours in 2022/23.

At HMP Glenochil, there has been a 40% fall, while at HMP Grampian the difference is 32%. HMP Low Moss in Bishopbriggs has seen a 22% drop.

Earlier this year, the head of the SPS, Teresa Medhurt, warned that inmates may have to be released early because of overcrowding.

She told the BBC Disclosure programme: “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 most recent statistics released by the Scottish Government said the prison population on 5 February 2024 was around 7,900.

They have forecast the daily prison population to be between 7,350 and 8,450 in June 2024. 

One of the key problems for the Scottish system is the delayed replacement of Barlinnie jail by HMP Glasgow, a project running around a decade late and £200m over budget.

Mr McArthur said: “Education and training are vital in a prisoner’s rehabilitation journey. They develop learning and employability skills, increasing the chances of those leaving being able to make positive contributions within their communities.

“To see evidence of a drop in the availability of these opportunities in certain parts of the estate, including in Scotland's largest prison, is, therefore, concerning.

“The majority of our prisons are now overcrowded, and that places real pressure on the prison service to deliver hours of purposeful activity.

“It also creates a vicious cycle because without those hours, we can expect more people to re-offend and return to prison, putting communities at even greater risk and placing ever-more strain on a system that is already fit to burst.

“I would urge the Justice Secretary to urgently publish a route map with milestones for increasing the provision of throughcare support and purposeful activity.

"More broadly, Scottish Liberal Democrats want to see the government creating a properly funded justice system that will ensure we strike the right balance between punishing, supporting and, crucially, rehabilitating.”

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Phil Fairlie of the Prison Officers' Association said the numbers were "indicative of the wider impact overcrowding, combined with the complexity of the population mix inside Scotland’s prisons has as an impact on the outcomes of what staff are expected to deliver." 

He added: "Apart from the extra time being used in simply delivering the daily basics such as meals, medication, exercise etc, our members are being drawn away from delivering the bit that makes the real difference to who we return back into our communities. 

"We are not quite warehousing prisoners at the moment, but neither are we doing what we want and are trained to do, in terms of tackling reoffending and preparing prisoners in the best way we can for release. 

"That’s not just a concern for us, it should concern society itself because this is about reducing reoffending, reducing the numbers of victims of crime,  and cutting down the numbers of those who return to our prisons. “

A Scottish Prison Service spokesperson said: “We have a population that is not only rapidly increasing, but also far more complex, which continues to put significant pressure on our establishments, staff, and those in our care.

“Despite this, our staff work hard to offer the best possible regimes, with access to programmes, work, and activities; opportunities for progression; and meaningful rehabilitation, which will give those in our care the best possible chance of a successful return to the community.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Whilst the management and treatment of prisoners is an operational matter for the Scottish Prison Service, we recognise the importance of purposeful activities and throughcare support to enable rehabilitation and successful reintegration.

“Significant work is underway to respond to the high prison population and we are increasing the prison service’s resource budget by 10% to £436.6 million to enable them to continue to provide a safe and secure prison system.

“We are also continuing to invest in third sector and local authority throughcare services, while the Bail and Release from Custody Act 2023 will improve support for people leaving prison.”