Further safeguard for those working and living in prisons amid COVID-19 outbreak.
A number of short-term prisoners nearing the end of their time in custody are to be released early, under measures designed to help tackle the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.
The plan will help prison and healthcare staff to continue to manage safely all those who remain in their care during the outbreak and follows measures taken across the world including elsewhere in the UK.
Regulations will be laid before Parliament so that release can start from 30 April. The scheme will be limited to those sentenced to 18 months or less and who on 30 April have 90 days or less left to serve.
The release of prisoners under the regulations will be subject to exclusions to ensure public protection, such as those who are imprisoned for life or with convictions for sexual offences, domestic abuse or terrorism offences.
It is estimated that around 300 to 450 prisoners who fall within this category will be considered for early release. Other administrations in the UK and internationally have taken the decision to release prisoners in the context of the current COVID-19 outbreak, including France and the Republic of Ireland.
Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf said:
“In this exceptional public health emergency, we are taking focused action to protect public safety as well as prisoners, prison staff and the NHS staff and others that work in our prisons.
“Using these emergency release powers, combined with increasing those on HDC (electronic monitoring) will substantially increase the availability of single-cell accommodation across the prison estate, which in turn will help SPS contain the spread of Coronavirus in our prisons. In addition, the resulting reduction in the prison population will allow the prison service to ease restrictions put on prisoners during these challenging times.
The Scottish Prison Service has had to make significant changes to how they operate already in just a few weeks, with family visits paused, restricted activities and additional time in cells for those in their care. We must help staff to manage prisons in a sustainable way over the weeks and months ahead. This latest step – based on the emergency powers passed by MSPs earlier this month – will give them greater capacity to help ensure a safe custodial environment.
“The pace of recent events has been rapid and, in the available time, we have been working with the prison service and community justice partners to consider what appropriate arrangements can be put in place for a number of individuals to be considered for return to their homes and families, just a few months or even weeks before they were otherwise due to be released.
“The SPS is proactively working to increase numbers on Home Detention Curfew (electronic monitoring), however the capacity for HDC is limited by the current lockdown and social distancing measures. It is clear we will must use emergency release powers over and above HDC.
“This is not a decision that I have taken lightly, and I want to assure the victims of crime that this does not diminish what they have suffered. In these exceptional circumstances, I must consider actions that best reduce the prospect of further harm both in prisons and the wider community of which they are part.”
The Scottish Parliament – through the Coronavirus (Scotland) Act 2020 – provided power for early release from custody. Regulations will now be laid under an expedited procedure which provides for the regulations to remain in force for an initial 28 days and will enable the immediate release of prisoners from 30 April.
The Act passed by Parliament already excludes any prisoner convicted of sexual or terrorism offences or imprisoned for life, and the Government’s regulations would also exclude those imprisoned for domestic abuse, those with non-harassment orders or those convicted of certain COVID-19-related offences. In addition, a Prison Governor may veto someone from the scheme where they consider that the individual presents an immediate risk of harm.
There has been an initial reduction in Scotland’s prison population over recent weeks as a result of the measures already taken to reduce court activity. Existing forms of prison release such as Home Detention Curfew will continue to have an impact across the wider prison population. However, this limited prison release of short-term sentenced prisoners will allow vital additional capacity for the prison service at this time.