Scottish prison system facing considerable risks says Auditor General for Scotland

Tuesday December 12th 2023

HMP Edinburgh Saughton

HMP Edinburgh in Saughton.

Written by Midlothian View Reporter, Luke Jackson

Scotland’s prison system is facing considerable risks, including the poor performance of the company that transports prisoners to and from custody.

The Auditor General for Scotland has published a s22 report on the challenges facing the Scottish Prison Service.

The Scottish Prison Service (SPS) contracted GEOAmey in 2018 to transfer prisoners in Scotland between prisons, courts, police custody units and healthcare facilities. But in recent years GEOAmey has been unable to recruit the staff needed to deliver the contract. This has resulted in significant delays and inefficiencies across the justice system.

SPS manages the custody and escorting contract on behalf of its justice partners. It issued improvement notices to GEOAmey, and fined the company about £4 million, but these have had limited impact. SPS is now taking more direct action, including offering financial support to GEOAmey to aid staff recruitment. These actions are expected to take around six months to take effect.

In the meantime, Scotland’s prison population is rising and becoming more complex. The average prison population was around 7,500 in 2022/23. It is forecast to increase to over 8,150 by March 2024. This will put more pressure on Scotland’s ageing prison estate, which needs significant investment to make it fit-for-purpose.

Stephen Boyle, Auditor General for Scotland, said:

“The issues facing Scotland’s justice sector are of significant concern and cannot be resolved by the Scottish Prison Service alone.

“It is essential that there is close collaboration between the prison service, the Scottish Government and their justice partners to ensure prison services can be maintained in a safe and secure environment.”

Section 22 reports are submitted to Scottish Ministers for laying in the Parliament along with the accounts of the relevant body. While there are statutory deadlines for these reports, the actual timing of publication is determined by when the report is laid in the Scottish Parliament by Scottish Ministers.

The Auditor General has prepared the report on the Scottish Prison Service’s audited accounts for 2022/23 under Section 22 of the Public Finance and Accountability (Scotland) Act 2000. This allows the Auditor General to bring to the Parliament’s and the public’s attention matters of public interest related to the financial statements of public bodies.

Some key points:

– Between April 2022 and October 2023, staffing levels at GEOAmey decreased from around 660 to around 520 full-time equivalents, around 25 per cent less than the estimated 670 to 700 needed to deliver the required levels of service.

– Between July and September 2023, only 62 per cent of prisoners due in court arrived back on time. Similarly, only 65 per cent of non-court escort services such as transfers to hospitals, police identification parades or special escorted leave, took place on time.

– Greater proportions of prisoners are required to be accommodated separately in Scotland’s prisons due to a wide range of issues, including their legal status (remand or convicted), sex, age or offending history.

– The Scottish Prison Service has said that the maximum the current prison estate can accommodate is approximately 8,300. However, this includes the use of double cell occupancy.

– In March 2023, an average of 2,368 prisoners (31.5 per cent) occupied double cells across the prison estate in Scotland. Double cells are used across establishments, including at HMP Perth where HMIPS reported in their May 2023 full inspection report that some shared cells were ‘well below the minimum standard of space’ as prescribed by the Council of Europe Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT). Similar criticisms have been raised by HMIPS about shared cells at HMP Barlinnie.

– The replacement for HMP Barlinnie is expected to be significantly higher than the £387.6 million originally estimated in October 2019.

You can read the full report The 2022/23 audit of the Scottish Prison Service HERE.

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