The treatment of prisoners during the coronavirus outbreak could be regarded as “inhuman or degrading”, MSPs have been told.
In a letter to the Justice Committee at Holyrood, the Scottish Human Rights Commission (SHRC) said some prisoners have been confined to their cells 24 hours a day with no access to showers or exercise, as well as a lack of contact with their families or legal representatives.
The Scottish Government put in place new regulations to curtail the spread of the virus in prisons, including the early release of some inmates and limiting the amount of time that can be spent outside.
The Scottish Prison Service (SPS) said the deaths of six inmates have been linked to coronavirus since the pandemic began.
In the letter, the SHRC said: “We are concerned that some of these changes, and associated SPS requirements of governors, are creating conditions where some prisoners’ fundamental rights are not being respected.
“We are particularly concerned that current conditions being experienced by some people could amount to inhuman and degrading treatment in breach of article three of the European Convention on Human Rights.”
The letter, signed by SHRC chairwoman Judith Robertson, said there had been no assurances given by the Scottish Government on the conditions of prisons.
Ms Robertson wrote: “Given the serious nature of our concerns, we have urged the Scottish Government to take action to ensure that all prisoners are being held in conditions which are fully in accordance with the state’s human rights obligations.
“To date, we have not received the assurances we would wish to see in this regard.”
The SHRC chairwoman also accepted that solitary confinement – locking an inmate in a single cell alone for an extended period of time – could be acceptable in some instances but only if a “comprehensive medical assessment” had been carried out.
In response to a question about the letter at the daily coronavirus briefing in Edinburgh, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon gave an assurance that the human rights of prisoners is a “key priority” for the Scottish Government.
She said she had not yet seen the SHRC letter but pledged to “look carefully” at it.
Ms Sturgeon said Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf had assessed different measures put in place to protect the prison population.
She added: “I can’t stress enough, at the best of times but particularly in these times, human rights for people in our prisons are very important and we will always seek to operate in a way that respects and protects that.”
Meanwhile, SPS is preparing to release data on the release of prisoners early on Tuesday.