‘Triple-lock’ restrictions in place as regulations laid to tackle COVID-19 in prisons.
Regulations to allow a limited number of short-term prisoners nearing the end of their time in custody to be released early have been laid in Parliament to help tackle the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.
The move will help prison and healthcare staff continue to safely manage those who remain in their care during the outbreak and follows prisoner release measures taken across the world, including elsewhere in the UK.
The scheme is limited to those sentenced to 18 months or less and who on 4 May have 90 days or less left to serve in custody. Detailed restrictions will be in place to exclude certain groups of prisoners from the process, based on their previous offending.
With the regulations in place, prison governors can take further steps, including liaison with local authorities and third sector community justice partners, to prepare for appropriate individuals to be released gradually over the next 28 days.
Up to 450 prisoners will be considered for early release. Reductions in Scotland’s relatively high prison population will increase the availability of single-cell occupancy, in turn helping to contain the virus and making prisons safer for inmates, prison officers and NHS staff.
Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf said:
“Scotland’s prisons have implemented significant changes in recent weeks, ending family visits and limiting time spent out of cells and I am extremely grateful to the dedication and professionalism of all those working in such challenging environments. By releasing a number of short-term prisoners a few weeks, and at most 90 days, ahead of their due release date, we will ensure there is capacity to safely manage the still large number of people in custody across the prison estate.
“Public protection is paramount and there will be a ‘triple lock’ set of restrictions. Firstly, our emergency legislation already passed by Parliament automatically excludes those in prison for the most serious crimes, including sexual or terrorism offences. Secondly, the subsequent regulations now exclude anyone who is serving a prison sentence for a COVID-19 related offence, or is currently or has recently been imprisoned for domestic abuse. And thirdly, each prison governor will have a veto over the release of any otherwise eligible prisoner if they have a concern for the safety of an identified individual in the community.
“Even with the protections I have outlined, this is not a decision I have taken lightly. I want to assure victims of crime that this does not in any way diminish their experience.
“I and my officials are engaging closely with victims organisations to ensure we continue to meet their needs as best we can in these challenging times. We continue to invest in and support their work, as well as that of police as they too support victims of crime and keep communities safe. We are also extending the Victim Notification Scheme to ensure that victims who are registered with the scheme will be notified about the early release of a prisoner. In these exceptional circumstances, I continue to take the actions I consider will best reduce the prospect of harm both in Scotland’s prisons and in the wider community of which they are part.”
The Cabinet Secretary for Justice wrote to the Justice Committee on Friday 1 May to confirm that work to prepare the regulations for the early release process had been completed, and the necessary statutory instrument would be laid before Parliament today.
While measures already taken to reduce court activity saw an initial reduction in Scotland’s prison population in recent weeks, and existing forms of prison release such as Home Detention Curfew will continue to have an impact across the wider prison population, the limited early release of short-term sentenced prisoners will allow vital additional capacity for Scotland’s prison service.
As of 3 May, there are currently 37 people in custody across 11 sites isolated as per protocol and being monitored accordingly.
The Scottish Parliament, through the Coronavirus (Scotland) Act 2020, granted Ministers powers to instruct early release of prisoners from custody where it was considered necessary to support the continued operation of the prison service, or to protect the health of prison staff and prisoners.
Following the Justice Secretary’s statement to Parliament announcing his intention to use the powers, regulations have now been introduced to enable the early release of a limited group of short sentence prisoners. The Regulations have been laid in the Parliament under an expedited procedure which will permit the early release of appropriate prisoners starting from 4 May, and will remain in force for the following 28 days. Only prisoners who are serving a sentence of 18 months or less, and who are within 3 months of their scheduled release date, will be considered for early release.
The 2020 Act already excludes any prisoner convicted of sexual or terrorism offences, imprisoned for life, or subject to a post-release supervision order. The regulations now laid will exclude those prisoners serving or who have recently served a sentence for domestic abuse, those with non-harassment orders, or those convicted of certain COVID-19-related offences. In addition, the Act enables a prison governor to veto someone from the scheme where they consider that that individual would present an immediate risk of harm to a named individual.
The Scottish Prison Service (SPS) will be issuing detailed notifications to each local authority in Scotland regarding the individuals who will be considered for possible early release. The releases will be phased over the following 28 days, to help SPS and local authorities to plan the process, and provide necessary support to individuals on their release.
More information on the Victim Notification Scheme, including detail on how to register, is available on the SPS website.
Victims can access free and confidential practical and emotional support by contacting Victim Support Scotland. Their helpline is open from Monday to Friday, 8am to 8pm on 0800 160 1985.