Scotland has the second highest prison population rate in western Europe, according to research published today by a leading international human rights organisation.

The study by the Council of Europe, based in Strasbourg, found the country has the largest number of men and women in prison per 100,0000 of population across the UK, with only the small island of Malta having a higher figure among nations in the western part of the continent.

Countries with higher rates than Scotland's included Turkey and the former Soviet states including Hungary, Poland, Georgia, Serbia, Estonia and Azerbaijan.

Western states and long established EU members including Germany, France, Denmark, Spain and Ireland all had substantially lower prison rates.

The report was based in part on a snapshot of the prison population on 31 January 2022 across 48 countries which supplied information to the Council of Europe's researchers.

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It will make difficult reading for the Scottish Government which has been seeking to lower the prison population rate for many years and bring it into line with neighbouring states in the EU.

Yet the survey found Scotland's incarceration rate stood at 136 inmates per 100,000 population, above that for England and Wales at 132 inmates per 100,000 of population, and well above the Europe-wide average of 104. Northern Ireland had a rate of 84.

In comparison, the respective incarceration rates for Germany, the Republic of Ireland and France were 67, 72 and 107.

Suicide rates in Scottish prisons were also higher than the European average. The report found that the median suicide rate in European prisons in 2021 was 9.4 per 10,000 inmates. Scotland had a rate of 16. Malta had the highest rate at 48.9 with rates in other countries including Austria, Estonia, Germany and Latvia also higher than the average.

It also highlighted a larger average number of remand prisoners in Scotland than elsewhere.

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On 31 January 2022, the study found the median proportion of pre-trial detainees across Europe was 25% of the total prison population.

In countries of more than one million inhabitants, the prison administrations with the highest percentages of pre-trial detainees included Northern Ireland (41%) and Scotland (30%). England & Wales (16%) was among the prison administrations with the lowest percentages of pre-trial detainees.

Former Justice Secretary Keith Brown last year blamed the number of historic sex offenders in custody as one of the reasons why Scotland's prison population had not fallen 14 years after a landmark report called for the high incarceration rate to be cut.

Ministers were told in 2008 that they should decrease the number of inmates from 8000 to 5000 amid longstanding concerns more people were being jailed per head of population by Scottish courts than other parts of western Europe.

However, despite the recommendation made in the report by the Scottish Prison Commission, chaired by former First Minister Henry McLeish, the prison population failed to drop substantially.

According to the service's most recent figures published on June 2 this year the total number of inmates in Scottish prisons stands at 7701.

Scottish Liberal Democrat justice spokesperson Liam McArthur MSP said:  "On the SNP’s watch, prisons are bursting at the seams, rates of self-harm have spiralled and the years it takes to investigate deaths puts others at risk. Overcrowding threatens staff safety and makes it harder to successfully rehabilitate people.

“Scottish Liberal Democrats want a properly-funded justice system that can deliver robust and credible community sentences where appropriate. It’s crucial we strike a balance between punishing, rehabilitating and supporting; that is how we will reduce reoffending and make communities safer."

Overall the Council of Europe report found that across the continent the end of lockdown measures to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic produced a rebound effect in the incarceration rates in many European countries between January 2021 and January 2022.

In the previous year, from January 2020 to January 2021, the overall European incarceration had fallen due to the decrease in street crime in the wake of lockdown restrictions during the pandemic, the slowing down of the judicial systems, and the implementation of release schemes in some countries.

Professor Marcelo Aebi, head of the research team from the University of Lausanne,, which compiled the report for the Council of Europe, said: “Throughout the last 12 years, the average European incarceration rate has slowly but consistently fallen. That drop was intensified during 2020 as a consequence of the Covid-19 lockdown measures.

"Therefore, the increase in 2022 reflects a return to relative normality in social life and the functioning of the European criminal justice systems."

The report found that on 31 January 2022, there were 981,575 inmates detained in the 48 prison administrations of Council of Europe member states that provided this information (out of 51), representing a median European prison population rate of 104 inmates per 100,000 inhabitants.

Due to the Russian Federation´s exclusion from the Council of Europe, the survey does not contain data about its prison administration, which accounted for one third of the total European prison population in previous years.

The Scottish Government has been approached for comment.