Some prisons ‘on the brink’ as overcrowding increases, MSPs told

Some Scottish prisons are “on the brink” and at “red status” due to overcrowding, MSPs have heard.

Addressing the Public Audit Committee on Thursday, Scottish Prison Service chief executive Teresa Medhurst said the prison population had risen to 8,246 as of Tuesday – a figure she described as “extremely concerning”.

The prison estate and population has come to the fore in recent months with delays to the building of the new HMP Glasgow and HMP Highland leading to concerns pressure may increase in the coming years.

Ms Medhurst said seven of the country’s 15 prisons – two of which are privately run – have declared “red status”, meaning they are struggling to cope with their duties.

“That means that they are signalling that the demands that are being placed on them at the moment, they are currently acute and critical but that they are still managing,” she said.

“We have not tipped over the red, but should any factors change such as an increased demand on them or a degradation in the staff profile – for example in terms of either leavers or sick absences – then conditions would deteriorate very quickly and we would not be able to cope with the current demands being placed on us.”

Under questioning from Scottish Conservative MSP Graham Simpson, Ms Medhurst added: “They are telling us they are on the brink.”

Barlinnie prison
MSPs were told HMP Barlinnie in Glasgow, which is due to be replaced, is among those to have declared ‘red status’ (PA)

She said the prison service is “managing to hold people as safely as we can”, conceding they are “not necessarily in the conditions that they should be held”, and the service is complying with its legislative obligations but is unable to provide “the full range of services to people that they could or should expect coming into custody”.

Allister Purdie, interim director of operations for the SPS, said red status prisons include HMPs Barlinnie, Edinburgh, Glenochil, Grampian, Perth and two others he said he would confirm to the committee at a later date.

Asked by Scottish Tory MSP Jamie Greene what the prisons are “on the brink of”, Ms Medhurst said increased pressures could result in prisoners not being able to access services and thus an increase in frustrations, as well as a spike in “spontaneous violence” caused by the need to share cells.

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The Scottish Government is focused on addressing the current high prison population.

“This includes maximising the best use of the current prison estate and investing in the provision of community-based sentences – which can be more effective than short term imprisonment at reducing reoffending and aiding rehabilitation – with an additional £14m.

“We want to ensure the safety of people living, and working, in prisons. We recognise that prison officers are at the front line and we are grateful for their hard work, knowledge and commitment.”