Up to 450 prisoners could be released early in an attempt to keep inmates and guards safe as Scotland’s prisons struggle to cope with the coronavirus pandemic, the Justice Secretary has said.
Humza Yousaf revealed he has asked the Scottish Prison Service to consider releasing convicts who are in the last three months of their sentence if they were sent to jail for less than 18 months.
He said the “necessary and proportionate response” will help protect inmates and staff from Covid-19 and ensure the prison system can continue to run safely.
Only prisoners already due for release within the next three months will be put forward for release, with those guilty of sexual offences, domestic abuse, terrorism or coronavirus-related offences excluded from consideration.
Ms Yousaf added no-one sentenced to a post-release supervision order will be released early, while prison governors will also have the power to veto any individual from early release, where there is evidence that they would pose an “immediate risk to an identified individual”.
The process for choosing which of the approximately 450 eligible prisoners are released early is expected to take place within the next month.
In a statement to Parliament, Ms Yousaf said: “This is in the interests of maintaining security and good order, and safeguarding the health, safety and welfare of prisoners and those working in our prisons.
“This action will help give the SPS sufficient capacity, including increased single-cell occupancy, to continue to maintain a safe custodial environment.”
Victims and their families who have signed up to the Victim Notification Scheme will be informed if a relevant offender is to be released.
“I understand that this will a difficult decision for some, including victims of crime,” Mr Yousaf said.
“This in no way diminishes the harm they have suffered but in these exceptional and unprecedented times, we must take difficult decisions that best reduce the risk of further harm.
“I am mindful that this decision will not be universally popular.
“However, let me be clear, it is my judgment that it is the right course of action for the safety of those who work in our prisons as well as for those in our care.”
He added: “It is at times like these that we must act in recognition of our obligations to all those in our society including those that live and work in our prisons and I believe this action is necessary, is proportionate and is the right action for a responsible Government to take.”
Following the statement, Scottish Liberal Democrat justice spokesman Liam McArthur said: “Making decisions like these, in the context of a pandemic, is an unenviable position to be in.
“It’s all the more difficult because of where we started. Scotland’s prisons were in crisis before Covid-19.
“We can’t just shift that burden to other under pressure services like GPs and housing so there needs to be a proper support package accompanying emergency release.
“This is important to avoid reoffending and protect the rights of victims.”
Scottish Greens justice spokesman John Finnie backed the decision for early release but added: “It is vital those released are given a safe landing going home, and for their families.
“Many prisoners are released with no home to go to and, as well as housing and financial assistance, individuals often need support with addictions and both physical and mental health issues.
“This is even more important in the current crisis.”