Prisoners cannot wait: acting now will save lives

Yesterday, the Scottish Government has released a Covid-19 related Bill. Amongst other issues, the Bill set out (inSchedule 4, Part 9, subsection 4) provisional rules on the early release of prisoners in Scotland and was debated in Parliament yesterday.

Within the Bill it stated that Ministers should be able to sanction the early release of people residing in prison if they deem it a “necessary and proportionate” action to help mitigate current or future impacts of the coronavirus. Early release would be enacted, if necessary, to firstly: protect the security and running of prisons and secondly: safeguard the health, safety, and welfare of people living and working in the prisons.

After the debate on this legislation, SPARC are stunned that Government have refused to make prisoners a priority and to treat them as equal human beings. The necessary legislation required to reduce the prison population and save lives is still seen as ‘a measure of last resort’, revealing the limits and meaning of justice in Scotland.

From our understanding, it’ll be three weeks at the earliest before the necessary secondary legislation to release prisoners can be considered. Over the last three weeks, the UK went from 8 deaths to 2,352, and there have been dramatic changes in public life. To leave prisoners waiting this long is to ignore everything we now know about this virus. This inaction verges on being reckless: It will mean a death sentence for some.

This also ignores the fact that viruses spread more rapidly in confined environments. This means that prisoners and prison staff health is being put at risk if we do not reduce the levels of incarceration in Scotland. For justice to mean anything the release of prisoners needs immediate action.

The Government noted that these are “extraordinary measures required to respond to an emergency situation” and explicitly stated, within the policy memorandum, that new legislation was necessary because existing mechanisms for releasing people in custody are not appropriate. However, we would argue that there are still existing options which need to be considered and acted upon now. For example, current legislations state that bail can currently be granted in Scotland for any remand prisoner at any stage pre-trial without the need for additional legislation. Given that remand prisoners account for almost 20% of the prison population and 54% of these individuals are being held for non-violent offences we urge the government to begin looking at their release.

We also know that despite overly cautious and risk averse guidance to the use of Home Detention Curfew (HDC) this is an option that would allow SG to act now. The Scottish Government should be doing everything in their power to increase its use. We know that over 20,000 people have been released on HDC licences since 2006 with a successful completion rate of around 80%. In this current time of crisis, that this mechanism has not been expanded is inexplicable.

The Scottish Government has also rejected the use of temporary release on the grounds that people liberated in this way cannot access the benefits system. This is undoubtedly an important point: releasing people with no means to support themselves is not in their interests, or in the interests of their families and communities. Making early release contingent on family support risks placing considerable pressure on families at home. However, Castle Huntly, Scotland’s only open prison, has a capacity of 285 men. The majority of these will already be receiving regular home leave, they will have been thoroughly risk assessed and have ongoing social work involvement. SPARC advocate a targeted use of resources to extend these periods of release of people in Castle Huntly, which will free up desperately required space inside the prison system.

This is urgent. But what are the barriers to making the necessary releases possible? The only risk being accounted for right now is the risk to the public and community from crime. The Scottish Government must move their thinking forward, to see people in prison not only in terms of the risk they create for others, but the risk they are forced into because of Scotland’s overcrowded prison conditions. People cannot wait, acting now will save lives.


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