Scotland’s prison population is reaching critical levels and could soon require inmates to be released early to free up space.

The Herald understands that there are 8,353 people currently incarcerated, the second-highest total ever recorded and the highest since the start of the Covid pandemic.

In January, Teresa Medhurst, the SPS chief executive, told the BBC that the “tipping point” would be when the population reached around 8,500.

A Scottish Prison Service spokesperson said the number had “increased rapidly in the past few weeks, in a way which was not anticipated.”

Justice Secretary Angela Constance is due to update Parliament on the state of the country’s prisons tomorrow.

READ MORE: Prisoners may have to be freed early from packed jails, chief warns

It is understood that six of the SPS's 15 prisons are currently registering "red risk" status.

Earlier this month, Ms Medhurst told Holyrood’s Public Audit Committee that this meant they were “still managing” but “conditions would deteriorate very quickly” if further demands were placed on them and that they would then “not be able to cope".

The prison boss told the MSPs that the service was dealing with a “range of competing and complex demands caused by our having a population that is now made up of a higher amount of serious organised crime gangs and people with increased social care needs and changing risk profiles".

Overcrowding in prisons south of the border has already led to the UK Government taking emergency measures to release some criminals early.

They have also triggered “Operation Early Dawn” which sees the start of some trials delayed some suspects released on bail rather than being sent to prison. 

A Scottish Prison Service spokesperson told The Herald: “Our population, which was already very high and extremely complex, has increased rapidly in the past few weeks, in a way which was not anticipated.

“This is putting significant pressure on our staff, our establishments, and those in our care.

“The complexity is driven by the high numbers of individuals who may require to be accommodated separately, for example, because they are on remand, have links to serious and organised crime, or due to their offending history, all of which exacerbates the challenges faced.

“It is further illustrated by the increase in demand for health and social care services across the prison estate in recent years, partly due to our ageing population.

“Many of our establishments are full beyond their design capacity.

"This increasingly restricts our staff’s ability to do the quality work that supports people’s personal development, rehabilitation, and chances of a successful reintegration into the community upon liberation, which is key to reducing the risk of reoffending.”

Scottish Conservative shadow justice secretary Russell Findlay said: "Any announcement to release prisoners early will come as no surprise given the many serious warnings from prison bosses.

“The SNP justice secretary must explain the exact terms of any such plan but must also take responsibility for her government’s failure to build desperately needed new prisons in Glasgow and the Highlands.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The Justice Secretary has updated Parliament twice in the last six months on the prison population, which is too high and rising.

"The needs of the population are also increasingly complex, which continues to put significant pressure on the entire prison system, and the Justice Secretary has made it clear that doing nothing is not an option.

“Scotland is facing the same challenges as England, Wales and Northern Ireland and, like them, we are taking a number of actions to address the issues, including making the best use of the current prison estate. 

“The Justice Secretary will update Parliament tomorrow on the prison population.”