Scottish Prison Service facing significant pressures, warns chief inspector

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HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for Scotland Wendy Sinclair-Gieben said there are concerns over a rising prison population and staffing (Andrew Milligan/PA)

The Scottish Prison Service (SPS) is facing “significant pressures” over its budgets, staffing levels and handling of rising prison populations, MSPs have been told.

Scotland’s chief inspector for prisons, Wendy Sinclair-Gieben, spoke at Holyrood’s Justice Committee on Tuesday and outlined the challenges ahead for the SPS.

And Ms Sinclair-Gieben highlighted that prisons are having to handle operating at overcapacity.

“I think the unprecedented population rise at the moment is a huge pressure,” the chief inspector said.

“We’ve basically got approximately 700 extra people in prison at any given time – that’s the equivalent of a large size prison. That’s no joke, to actually place that pressure on.

“I know the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) has no additional budget to manage those extra 700 people which is a problem.

“I don’t think we necessarily have the space. They are having to put two people into a room primarily designed for one. I think the human rights people are going to be exorcised about that.

Ms Sinclair-Gieben also said she understands that unions are considering taking action short of a strike, adding to current pressure.

She said: “I think the SPS is facing a population pressure, a budget pressure, a staffing pressure with the sickness absence and the unions. I think these are significant pressures.”

Asked by Scottish Green MSP John Finnie whether the ageing population at Scottish prisons is creating challenges, Ms Sinclair-Gieben replied that it “certainly is”.

The chief inspector said: “One of the things that has become clear for me is that it’s not just the rise in prison population, but it’s the complexity of the population.

“So you’ve got I think the difference between 400 and 1,400 legacy sex offenders in at the moment.

“That’s a significant difference, because they’re legacy sex offenders, they are of necessity older and therefore more likely to require social care.

“Prisons are predominantly built for young-ish, fit-ish men and we’re asking very much older people, a much larger older population, to be kind of shoehorned into that.

Ms Sinclair-Gieben explained that the increase in the number of prisoners had caused there to be a “slowdown” in the system for processing applications for offending behaviour programs.

She said: “We have an increasing level of complaints about progression – people feeling that they can’t progress through the system and out.

“I think that’s a combination of pressure from increasing numbers. If you’ve got 700 extra people all competing for offending behaviour programs, inevitably there’s going to be some slowdown in the system.

“So I think we as a nation are going to suffer a challenge on overcrowding, and I think we’re going to suffer challenge on progression.”

The chief inspector also indicated that an ageing staff population has raised concerns, with many expected to leave within the next year and a half.

Ms Sinclair-Gieben said: “What I’ve noticed is that there’s a bulge, a baby-bulge if you like, which means that in about 18 months, a significant number of staff are going to leave because they’re due to retire.

“When they retire, that’s a bulge that has to be predicted in succession planning and I’ve talked to SPS about that and I know they’re fully aware and dealing with that.

“But the bit that does worry me is that level of corporate knowledge and experience. You know, these are well experienced staff that we’re going to be losing, a bulk of them at the same time and that does worry me.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “As last year’s inspectorate report highlighted, we must never take for granted the good order that is maintained in Scotland’s prisons and that they are, in general, stable and secure environments. That is to the credit of the hard-working staff in Scotland’s prisons.

“We are actively monitoring the rising prison population and have been working closely with the prison service to put contingency measures in place to ensure the safety and security of staff and people in its care are maintained.

“We continue to strengthen the provision of alternatives to custody, both to tackle the high remand population and to ensure community sentences can support rehabilitation and reduce reoffending to help keep crime down and communities safe.”

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