'Miracle' more mistakes not happening in prisons as Scottish jails slammed in report

13 September 2023, 10:37 | Updated: 13 September 2023, 12:22

Daniel Khalife, who escaped from Wandsworth prison.
Daniel Khalife, who escaped from Wandsworth prison. Picture: Alamy

By Gina Davidson

A former prison governer has s told LBC it's a "miracle" more mistakes, like the escape of terror suspect Daniel Khalife, aren't happening in UK jails.

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Khalife's escape from HMP Wandsworth upped concerns about the consequences of overcrowding and understaffing in England's prisons.

Now a new report has found identical issues are "entrenched" across the Scottish estate which has one of the highest prison populations per head in Europe.

Findings from Wendy Sinclair-Gieben's fifth annual report as HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for Scotland's include:

Prison infrastructure which cannot cope with the size of the prison population and has no surge capacity

Prisons regularly operating above their design capacity

Residential areas remaining 'chronically under resourced' to ensure safety and respond to incidents

Antiquated Victorian prison establishments that breach human rights guidelines on cell size

Staff shortages evident across establishments impacting healthcare delivery and staff training

Deep concerns with prison transport arrangements leading to cancelled healthcare appointments

The Chief Inspector also said: "The rise in remand, overcrowding, social isolation, an ageing estate, very limited access to purposeful and rehabilitative activity, the backlog in offending behaviour work, alcohol and substance issues, prisoner transport failures and inequitable access to good healthcare remain highly problematic.

"A root and branch review of practice is required to address the systemic recommendations we constantly repeat."

Former prison governor with the Scottish Prisons Service, Rhona Hotchkiss said the report underlined the pressure prison staff are under.

"If you're chronically short staffed, if you have a demoralised and overworked set of prison officers then of course mistakes are more likely to happen," she said.

"It's actually a miracle and a tribute to the professionalism of prison officers that more mistakes don't happen.

"If prisons are overcrowded and understaffed you put terrible pressure on everyone and some day that's going to break down in a spectacular way.

"This has been building and building over years... you cannot underestimate the amount of cooling and calming work officers do to keep a lid on this situation.

"It's unfair to them and to prisoners and their families that this has continued for so long."

The report was described as "damning" by opposition party MSPs in the Scottish Parliament.

Scottish Conservative shadow justice secretary Russell Findlay said it "confirms the many warnings from prison staff about the catastrophic conditions inside Scotland’s jails. It must serve as a wake-up call for SNP ministers.

“Crumbling Victorian-era prisons, rampant drug use and a lack of basic resources is endangering staff and making rehabilitation impossible, thereby continuing the cycle of crime on our streets.

“Yet this complacent SNP government has no sense of urgency, with the desperately needed Glasgow and Highland prisons already subject to significant delays.”

Scottish Liberal Democrat justice spokesperson Liam McArthur added: "Scotland's prisons are not serving prisoners, prison staff or the wider community well.

"Far too many prisoners are on remand, violent assaults are commonplace and cells are bursting at the seams. When all of this is taken into account it is no wonder that the death rate in prisons trebled over last decade.

“If the government is serious about breaking the cycle of reoffending we need to see a properly-funded justice system that can deliver robust and credible community sentences where appropriate.

"We also need a modern prison estate that can strike a balance between punishing, rehabilitating and supporting; that is how we will reduce reoffending and make communities safer.”

In a letter to Holyrood's criminal justice committee in the wake of the inspector's report, Justice Secretary Angela Constance said action was being taken to tackle the rise in the prison population, including extending the presumption against short sentences, using more electronic tags, ensuring remand is reserved for those who pose a risk to public and victim safety and spending £134m on community justice services this year.

She said that the recent increase in the number of people on remand, along with a longer term trend of more people being convicted of serious crimes and receiving longer sentences, are part of the reason why Scotland's prison population has increased to levels beyond prediction.

"The rise is influenced by multiple factors including reducing the backlog of cases in our justice system by over a third," she said.

“The Scottish Government is not changing its position on the use of prisons. They are necessary and the removal of someone’s liberty must always be available for our independent courts. Equally, we know that short periods of imprisonment, including for remand, can also have a hugely negative impact on individuals - disrupting families, their health, employment opportunities and housing - which can then lead to reoffending.

“We are now working with justice partners to take forward a series of measures including making the best use of the current prison estate and sourcing additional prisoner places to ensure the safety and wellbeing of people living and working in prisons and those around them.”

Positives in this latest report did include the growth of recovery cafes, a drop in segregation with young people and greater use of technology to support family contact. You can read the report in full here.

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