Prison population: position paper

Scottish Government action to address the increase in prisoner numbers. Includes information on the drivers of the prison population and country comparisons.


Due to a rapid rise in the prison population, creating an unprecedented situation, similar to challenges faced across the UK, immediate action is needed to ensure the safety and wellbeing of SPS staff.

We need to ensure prisons can function effectively, focus on those who pose the greatest risk of harm, and provide programmes that help reduce reoffending. Protecting victims and public safety remains an absolute priority, that is why our proposal for emergency early release has specific safeguards built in. It will only be available to those who are serving short sentences under 4 years and are due to be released within the coming months. In addition no one serving a sentence for sexual offences or domestic abuse will be released, and a veto can be applied by governors for anyone deemed a risk to a specific individual or group.

Rise in prison population

On Thursday 16 May the prison population was 8,348 – a rise of around 400 over the last two months. That rate of increase is significant and could not have been anticipated. It comes in the context of a rise of around 10% since this time last year. A continued rise in the immediate term is plausible.

The prison population had been relatively stable between October 2023 and March 2024, but it was already high (around 7,950). The longer term drivers of the prison population are discussed in more detail below, but one of the most notable is an increase in average sentence lengths. This is compounded by a high population of those on remand (untried and awaiting sentence), due in large part to the post-pandemic court backlog. 

Short terms spikes are generally more difficult to predict. Our most recent projections for the prison population were published in February 2024. At that time our expectation was that the prison population would either remain stable or increase slightly. The specific reasons for the sharp rise over the last two months are not clear.

SPS reports that six prisons – over a third of the estate – currently has a red risk rating, up from one just six weeks ago. This takes into account a number of factors, including the daily population compared to design capacity, the prevalence of double occupancy in cells, the protection of individuals, staffing levels and other factors affecting the overall safe running of the prison. This reflects the scale and breadth of the challenge the SPS is facing in terms of maintaining safety and security, as well as delivering rehabilitative regimes. The SPS also points to a number of factors that suggest the population is more complex than it ever has been, namely the burden of keeping serious crime groups apart, an ageing prison population, illegal drug use and demands on healthcare and other critical services, including mental health and social care support which adds to pressures in the system.

Taken together, we are now dealing with an unprecedented situation. Action is required to ensure the safety and wellbeing of SPS staff and those in their care, to ensure that programmes that contribute to reducing reoffending and rehabilitation can take place, and to ensure prisons continue to function effectively and can accommodate those who pose the greatest risk of harm.

Trends in the prison population

It is worth noting that crime has fallen in Scotland and that from 2011-12 to 2022-23 the number of people entering prison each year has fallen substantially, from around 14,900 in 2011-12, to 10,950 in 2019-20 and then 8,400 in 2022-23. Yet we have a rising prison population. And whilst many countries across Europe have also recently experienced substantial annual increases in their prison populations, Scotland already had one of the highest populations in Europe along with the rest of the UK.

The annual statistics for the average daily prison population, from 2011 to date, are included in the section: prison population numbers. The overall change between 2011-12 and 2022-23 was a nine percent reduction. Between 1 January 2023 and 16 May 2024 the overall population increased from 7,303 to 8,348; in the past year there has been an increase of 795 or 10.5% (7,553 to 8,348). Today the number in remand are 2,326 this is an increase of 12% since 1 January 2023.

The response to the Covid pandemic had a substantial impact on the prison population. Between March 2020 and May 2020, the population fell from just over 8,000 to just under 6,900, as a result of justice system responses, including emergency release of 348 prisoners.

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