Jails are bursting at the seams, staff are exhausted, and as police arrest more and more organised crime members, Scotland’s prisons are in turmoil. Our Writer at Large reports

IT sounds like life for prison officers at the height of Ulster’s Troubles: intimidation, threats to kill, assassination plots, firebombings, and looking over your shoulder when you clock off and walk through the jail gates.

But this isn’t Northern Ireland, it’s Scotland in 2024. Prison officers are being terrorised by organised crime gangs inside and outside the nation’s jails. The Herald on Sunday sat down with Phil Fairlie, Scottish secretary of the Prison Officers Association, for an in-depth discussion about what’s going behind bars. His assessment is stark.

Our prisons are already in crisis due to intense overcrowding. The Scottish Government began an early release programme for 500 prisoners last week to ease conditions. However, gangland bosses and their foot soldiers are causing a struggling service to buckle.

“There are around 700 people in our prisons with direct links to organised crime,” Fairlie explains. Numbers have leapt due to the increasingly sophisticated work of detectives. Estimates put the population of Scottish prisoners linked to organised crime groups at 9%.

“It’s huge credit to Police Scotland for the arrest and prosecution of people much higher up the ladder than we’d normally get,” Fairlie says. “We normally get foot soldiers.” Now it’s gang bosses getting jailed. “However, that means we’ve now got to mange them.”

Prison officers always face violence, but the influx of organised crime bosses means “the type of threat, intimidation and violence staff have been subjected to is at a different level. It isn’t about volume, it’s about genuine threat to safety”.

More than 10 prison officers’ cars have been firebombed “in prison car parks by organised crime gangs, either as a warning, intimidation, or payback for intervening in their operations”. In other words, cross gangland bosses and a target goes on prison officers’ backs. “It’s a price, it’s the crime gang’s way of saying ‘your card is marked’. They come at night on motorbikes, torch cars and are gone in minutes.”

There have been alleged murder plots launched against prison officers. In some cases, police had to spirit prison officers from their homes to safety. “One was told to just pack his bags, get in the car and come with police.”

Fairlie adds: “That’s not what prison officers in Scotland are used to. For my colleagues in Northern Ireland, this isn’t news to them – some have lived their whole lives like that.”


Phil Fairlie

Phil Fairlie


Crime gangs are now using drones to fly drugs into jails to beat scanners and searches. “Drones are the big thing,” says Fairlie. “You just drone drugs up to the windows.” Drones also drop drugs in areas like exercise yards which inmates can access.

The only way to defeat drone drug-smuggling is through surveillance cameras and “the human eye”. Officers have caught gangsters receiving drugs “as they’re coming through the window” of their cell.

Cameras and human surveillance, however, “aren’t enough. For the one drone that’s caught, there are two or three coming from elsewhere. It’s constant. We haven’t got a solution”.

Drones smuggle other contraband. “Anything you can get on drones, they’ll bring in.” That means weapons and mobile phones, which crime bosses use to run their empires inside and outside prison. Mobiles are forbidden, but Fairlie adds: “We’re kidding ourselves if we think there’s a jail anywhere in the country that doesn’t have them. There are mobiles in every Scottish prison.”

So far, there’s “nothing to suggest” gangsters have successfully smuggled in guns. However, Fairlie says: “Given the individuals we’ve got inside now, coupled with what I know of their plans, guns being brought in wouldn’t come as a huge shock. These guys are serious.”

Fairlie, who stresses he’s speaking in a personal capacity, says consideration should be given to taking prisoners convicted of organised crime “out of the mainstream” into smaller, high-security units.

Even that, though, wouldn’t “stop them functioning”. Gangsters would “still be able to orchestrate their crime empires. If they decided that somebody in mainstream needs taken out or lessons learned, or someone needs assaulted or stabbed, that’ll still happen. These guys make those things happen, no matter what we do with them”.

He adds: “They never take a day off, a prison sentence means nothing to them. It’s an occupational hazard. Human life has no value to them. If you’re a barrier to them making that next pound, they’ll remove you.”

Fairlie says: “There are battles for control of the prisons between rival gangs which is where much of the added violence comes in, as well as settling old scores from events outside while they’re in prison.

“The more senior figures look to avoid conflict with staff or draw attention to themselves directly, but they have their foot soldiers to do that for them.

“The victims of the crime gangs are usually the drug users, and the new drug users they create, or those that want access to phones for family contact. They generate debt that’s required to be settled by the prisoners’ families outside, and if, or often when, the debt can’t be paid, the prisoner or sometimes the family members become the victim of retribution.”

Threats of violence against officers and their families clearly means staff risk being compromised or coerced into committing crime.

Gangsters have tried to subvert the recruitment process. “They try to get their own people inside prison working as officers.” That’s creating suspicion among staff.

“It’s a completely different set of risks that we’re dealing with now than we’ve dealt with before.”

However, Fairlie says staff “do remarkable work every day in remarkable circumstances. Prisons aren’t ‘reigns of terror’ and prisoners aren’t running riot either. But they could very easily be, if it wasn’t for the unbelievable skills, knowledge, commitment and resilience of staff while we go through this almost unprecedented period”.

However, stress and threat have consequences. Prison officers “aren’t robots or machines. Around 35-40% of staff absence is related to mental health, the vast majority directly related to their place of work”.


A prison officer walks through A hall at Barlinnie prison, Glasgow... Photograph by Colin Mearns.23 April 2024.For The Herald, see story by Norman Sylvester.



So, how does the explosion in gangland violence impact jails already under stress? Fairlie says that the overall picture is of a system “in flux”. Money has been spent building “good modern” prisons, but they “sit alongside crumbling old wrecks that should’ve been replaced long ago”.

Due to “overcrowding, we’re doing just the basics”. The “stuff that matters”, he says – rehabilitation work – “just isn’t getting done to any scale that’ll make a difference”.

Staff are often “more worried about their safety and security than the service they’re supposed to be giving”. That means ordinary prisoners are often unable to access work, education, programmes aimed at tackling offending, or even exercise which is a legal right. “The more it’s overcrowded, the less access every prisoner has,” Fairlie adds. “For some it’s no access, for others it’s limited.”

Overcrowding means officers have far less time to build relationships with prisoners, which helps contain tensions and is a valuable intelligence source. “You can’t put six officers in with 150 prisoners and think you’ve got control. You haven’t.”

Access to healthcare is constrained by overcrowding, and affects the atmosphere inside prisons. Inmates are “paranoid about their health. If they can’t get access to care, it becomes a huge problem. The temperature rises”.

Fairlie adds: “Huge numbers of staff are absolutely exhausted.

“They’re working harder than ever.” Every education class, visit, ‘work shed’

– where prisoners undertake jobs – is either “packed, or closed down”. In order to do “what’s required by law” – like feeding prisoners, and distributing medication – “other stuff gets set aside. Staff are just running around, trying to tick boxes. It’s exhausting”.

Again, lack of access to work, recreation or education creates a “backlash” from prisoners who feel “neglected”. It’s a “vicious circle”.

Fairlie is frustrated by the public’s “out-of-sight, out-of-mind attitude” to prisons. “Prisoners are all going to come back into society at some point, and society is less safe the way prisons are running.”

Overcrowding means there’s less work done on “diverting prisoners from offending behaviour” through rehabilitation programmes. “If you put them back out without providing them with skills or education, with no stable home environment, or a house ready for them, then they’re coming back in. They’re going to go out and sink, they’ll reoffend, and that means somebody will be their victim again.

“So, if that’s not happening, society isn’t safer. At £45,000 per prisoner per year, to put them back out no better, or sometimes worse than when they came in, is a complete waste of taxpayers’ money.”





Some staff previously worked as “throughcare officers” preparing prisoners for release, helping with housing, healthcare and employment, making sure they had got education and been through anti-offending programmes. “It was fantastic,” Fairlie says, and had “high success rates” when it came to recidivism. But overcrowding meant these staff “were called back to supplement the shortfalls and deliver the basics. So we lost those roles”.

Scotland, Fairlie explains, “locks up more prisoners than anywhere else in Western Europe”. We have “slightly higher” numbers than England and Wales proportionally. Ten of our 15 prisons are overcrowded.

Currently, there are 8,300 prisoners in Scotland. Until the emergency release programme began last week, prisons “were predicted to hold 8,700 by the end of summer”. The maximum population should be 7,700. “In effect, we’re holding the equivalent of another large prison, with no increase in space or staff.”

Barlinnie in Glasgow is 35% above capacity. The higher the overcrowding, the greater the risk of violence. “Doubling up” is now common, with two men in one-man cells, or three men in two-man cells, sometimes with the extra inmate “in a sleeping bag on the floor. One-man cells have been known to hold three as well”.

Doubling up is a security hazard. If two prisoners have history on the outside they can’t share together. That issue “has got significantly worse because of the numbers of organised crime members in prison now”. Making such security checks demands time, in prisons were officers have no time. “There are risks that something slips through the net because of sheer volume,” Fairlie adds.

Fairlie supports the release programme but only “as a short-term response to crisis. It’s not a fix, or solution. It’s simply about giving us time to catch our breath”. It will, he hopes, reduce “some of the conflict, aggression and violence” linked to overcrowding.

The Scottish Government needs to provide real answers for the crisis. If courts simply send another 500 people into prison immediately, then the release scheme will have been pointless, he adds.


First Minister John Swinney

First Minister John Swinney



Are dangerous criminals being released early? “Some coming out will have violent offences in their histories – if not this sentence, then previous sentences. It would be complacent to say there are none coming out who weren’t at some point dangerous, or may be dangerous again.”

Those freed, however, “are at the stage in their sentence where they’re being considered for release or weren’t that far from release”. Anybody convicted of sexual offences, domestic violence or terrorism isn’t eligible. “But it’s definitely not risk-free.”

Prisoners unable to access education, work and rehabilitation programmes due to overcrowding spend most of the day “behind the door”. “They’ll probably be locked up six hour a day more than somebody with access to work or education.” Overcrowding means access to work and education “is reduced dramatically”.

If prisons were at the correct capacity, then staff numbers would only be “1-2% short of the complement needed”. But there are no extra staff to match overcrowding, so “burnout and sick numbers go up”.

Although Fairlie is an SNP councillor, he’s unafraid to criticise the Scottish Government when asked: has the current system failed? “Yes,” he says. However, he gives credit to the government, saying that “in terms of investment into new prisons and improving facilities, it’s never been better. They’ve attempted to do the right thing”.

He also applauded the “trauma-informed approach” the government championed: recognising that many prisoners have suffered intense childhood abuse or violence, experienced care and homelessness, and have mental health and drug problems. These events drive offending. Again, the public mostly “don’t want to know” about these facts.

Once you read the histories of many inmates, says Fairlie, “the inevitability” of their offending becomes apparent. However, the trauma-informed approach “fell on its face very quickly because it’s not been supported by funding to give staff the training needed to work in an intensive, in-depth way with prisoners to facilitate better outcomes”.

When it comes to mental health, “we’re not trained to cope”, he adds. The trauma-informed approach is a “difficult sell” to a public and tabloid press which knows little about the causes of offending, and often just wants prisoners locked up.


“We need to think about the human being,” Fairlie says. That means understanding what shaped offenders in childhood, and why they keep returning to jail. That can be hard, he says. When prisoners are “standing effing and blinding at you, with chairs in their hands, threatening to smash you over the head, the normal thing is to get your baton out”. However, understanding their history of abuse and poverty helps explain such behaviour – and that alone can reduce tension. Good prison officers need “empathy”.

The “complex mental health issues” affecting many prisoners are exacerbated by psychoactive drugs like spice now flooding jails. Made in back-street labs, sometimes in China, the drug’s chemical make-up varies widely by batch causing intense, unpredictable reactions. Spice batches no bigger than phones “can keep a whole hall in Edinburgh going for a month, you just need a tiny dot for an effect”. Previously, officers knew what to expect from heroin, cocaine or cannabis, but now even prisoners “scare the hell out of themselves” due to spice’s intense effects.

It’s not just gangsters bringing in drugs. Visitors smuggle, and there have been cases involving staff and solicitors. Spice was smuggled in by impregnating letters, but mail is now forbidden. Prisoners only receive photocopied letters. “For every route we shut down, another opens. For every capture – where we take thousands of pounds of drugs out of the system – it’s back again.”

Adding to staff pressure is the fact jails now house “an enormous number of elderly prisoners for historic sexual offences. They need significant social care and we’re not trained in that either”. Elderly sex offenders need help with hygiene and mobility, and some have dementia.

Prisoners with complex mental health issues shouldn’t be in mainstream jails, Fairlie feels. They need “medium-secure units”, where there’s more nursing and mental health staff than prison officers. Elderly offenders need facilities more like “secure care homes”.

Many elderly sex offenders “will die in prison”. Staff relocate them to “care facilities” at the end of life. For prisoners suffering acute mental health problems, “they’ll just keep coming back” unless they get treatment.


Geriatric paedophiles are held in segregation. These wings, Fairlie says, look like old people’s homes. Prisons have become “effective mental health units”. Fairlie adds: “We’ve far too many with significant mental health issues. They’re a huge risk to themselves and others. The level of really troubled behaviour is more than I can ever remember”.

Overcrowding and mental health problems are combustible. Once gain, “it raises the temperature,” he says.

Remand is one of the biggest issues affecting overcrowding. There are around 1,800 remand prisoners “tying up huge amounts of space and officer time”. Remand prisoners get it worse than convicted inmates. “They can be behind the door 20 hours-plus a day. They’re pretty much warehoused.” Prisoners can be on remand for “months, some over a year”.

“It’s ridiculously overused,” Fairlie says. “If that was a group of convicted prisoners, the European Court of Human Rights would absolutely not accept the way we’re treating them.”

Are the human rights of convicted prisoners being abused through overcrowding? “I couldn’t give a guarantee that they’re not, that’s probably as honest an answer as I can give.”

Dealing with the multiple threats and crises in prison requires well-trained staff. In the past, most staff came from military backgrounds. Today the prison service wants “social workers in uniform”. Fairlie insists he’s not criticising social workers, new officers, nor the need for the trauma-informed approach, but a mix of “hard” and “soft” skills are needed. Officers should have both “jail craft” and empathy.

“Trauma-informed training is really important, but it can’t be at the expense of recognising what it is you’re coming into, who you’re dealing with, and how you keep yourself safe.” Staff are now “leaving quicker than ever before. They find out very quickly what they’re coming to”.

So, does prison work? The answer is “yes” if the public “just want them off the streets, but the real test of whether prison works is when they come back out, do they reoffend and create more victims? For far too many – and the recidivism rates tell you this – prison doesn’t work. We haven’t got it right”.

What frustrates Fairlie is that prison “isn’t the whole answer”, even though the public often think it’s the only solution to offending. “We can put a prisoner through every programme we’ve got, but if, when we let him out, he’s got no home to go to, an addiction problem, and mental health issues unaddressed – if he’s lost and desperate – he goes back to what he knows.

“It’s not just about ‘was the sentence long enough’, ‘were you harsh enough’, ‘did you give them the tools to stop reoffending’. Prison isn’t the answer on its own.”

Many prisoners are “products of society’s failure”. On working trips to Scandinavia, Fairlie was “gobsmacked” by the widely-accepted notion that society is responsible for creating criminals. “It’s 100% right, but how the hell do you get the culture in Scotland or the UK to start to think on those terms? We’re miles from that.”


Open metal handcuffs on transparent background. 3d render



THERE would be far fewer victims if we took a public health approach to crime, Fairlie believes. That would mean the state focusing on child poverty, childhood trauma, and homelessness, in order to keep young people at risk of offending away from crime before they reach adulthood. “No matter how different the crime, the route into criminal behaviour – for huge numbers – is the same. The numbers who come through the care system is disproportionally higher. Intervention needs to happen in childhood, not when they come to prison. We’ve failed by the time they come to prison.”

A public health approach means “preventative spending” – diverting taxpayers’ pounds to improve the childhoods of young people at risk of offending. But politicians fear looking soft on crime and “getting slaughtered in the press. It would take huge bravery”. Short-term electoral cycles mean politicians lack courage as it would take years to “reap the benefits” and see offending fall. Good societies need “less prisons”, Fairlie believes.

There are 2,500 prisoners serving short-term sentences for “petty offences”, often repeat criminals regularly returning to jail. They could be dealt with “in the community”, using non-custodial options like electronic tagging and home detention, or – given so many offend due to addiction or mental illness – receive court-ordered treatment. Non-violent remand prisoners should also be subject to tagging and home detention. If they breach conditions, then send them to jail pending trial.

Between short-term prisoners and remand, there are 4,300 inmates “we can mostly do nothing with”, who clog up the system and take up staff time which could be spent rehabilitating serious offenders, and containing gangsters.

“Nobody benefits,” says Fairlie, from the system now. In Scotland, there’s a presumption against jailing women if possible, due to the trauma many female offenders experienced in childhood. Fairlie says the same should go for men, as many male offenders have also suffered extreme childhood trauma. “I don’t understand why it’s a gender issue. If there’s scope to not send people to prison and it doesn’t add to the risk to the community, why does gender matter?”

While more women will clearly have suffered sexual violence, many men will have too, or suffered extreme physical violence and neglect as children, he explains. “Those women are the sisters of the men who grew up in the same environment.”

To Fairlie, good societies are judged on how the most vulnerable, and most despised, are treated. How we behave towards prisoners says much about us. “To me, that’s an absolute truth.”