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Prisons close to breaking point, Auditor General reports

13 September 2019

Scotland's prisons face a crisis of overcrowding and underfunding, according to a new report by the Auditor General for Scotland.

Reporting to the Scottish Parliament, the Auditor General, Caroline Gardner, says the Prison Service's revenue budget reduced by 12.5% in real terms between 2014-15 and 2018-19, from £394.7m to £345.2m, while its costs are rising. In March this year, the Scottish Prison Service wrote to the Scottish Government forecasting a deficit of £13.5m in 2019-20.

Meanwhile prisoner numbers increased by nearly 9% in 2018-19, to 8,212, and are set to rise further – while financial pressures are compromising efforts to prepare and support prisoners for life outside prison. The Prison Service has an operating capacity of 7,676 prisoners and a design capacity of 7,886.

The report also states that over the last two years, there have also been significant increases in assaults by prisoners against staff and other prisoners. Staff sickness absence has risen by 60% over the past three years, with stress the biggest single cause of absence. Stress-related sickness among staff rose by nearly one third in 2018-19, and additional payments to staff working longer hours increased by 65% to £4.25m.

It further points out that while the recent extension of the presumption against short-term sentencing to sentences of up to 12 months should reduce prisoner churn (the numbers of prisoners entering and leaving prison), "it is estimated to have a relatively small impact in reducing prisoner numbers. For example, a 20% reduction in custodial sentences between three months and a year would reduce the prison population by 200".

Study of key performance indicators shows a deterioration over the past two years, and the absence of funding to renew the aging prison estate "presents a risk to operations".

Ms Gardner commented: "Scotland's prisons are running well over operating capacity. The Scottish Prison Service faces a combination of severe pressures on many fronts; this poses a threat to operational safety, effectiveness and financial sustainability."

Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf said the "unprecedented growth" in the prison population resulted from a greater focus on organised crime and sexual offending, including historical and online offences, as well as longer sentences being imposed.

He stated: "We have already made additional financial provision available to help SPS meet cost pressures and I will be working with the Finance Secretary to keep the budget position under review." 


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