A defined group of short-term prisoners in Scotland who are approaching the end of their time in custody are to be released early, under measures designed to help tackle the coronavirus outbreak.

Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf told the Scottish Parliament that the scheme will apply to those sentenced to 18 months or less and who on 30 April have 90 days or less still to serve. Regulations will be laid before the Parliament so that release can start from 30 April. 

The plan is intended to help prison and healthcare staff to continue to manage safely all those who remain in their care during the outbreak. Release will be subject to exclusions to ensure public protection, such as those who are imprisoned for sexual offences, domestic abuse or terrorism offences. Prison governors will also have the power to veto any individual from early release, where there is evidence that they would present an immediate risk to an identified individual.

It is estimated that 300 to 450 prisoners who fall within this category will be considered for early release.

An early release scheme begun in England & Wales last week was suspended after six prisoners were released in error. All returned of their own accord.

Speaking outside the chamber Mr 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 home detention curfew (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."

He told MSPs that 89 people across 12 places of detention are currently being monitored for COVID-19. In addition, a significant number of prison staff cannot be in work, either due to ill health, a requirement to isolate or as a result of needing to take care of children and family members. 

Mr Yousaf added: "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 HDC (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."

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Welcoming the announcement, Judith Robertson, chair of the Scottish Human Rights Commission, said: "People in prison are an extremely vulnerable population and those working in prisons are key frontline workers providing a vital public service. The epidemiological evidence is clear that prisons are places of high risk in the current pandemic, and the Council of Europe’s Committee on the Prevention of Torture has set out the human rights principles that should be applied to people in prison and other places of detention in this context. 

"While a number of measures have been adopted to date by the Scottish Government, the Scottish Prison Service and the judiciary, including sched 4 to the Coronavirus (Scotland) Act 2020, these measures have not yet managed to reduce the prison population to a safe and manageable level. It is therefore crucial to act urgently to reduce the prison population in order to ensure the continued safe and effective operation of prisons in Scotland and we welcome this announcement today that responds to this need."

She continued: "It is important that prisoners are fully supported upon release, with resources allocated to ensure their safe accommodation and to provide them with necessary financial, health and welfare support. It is also important to consider, assess and manage any impact of early release on victims, prisoners’ families and wider services in the community. Human rights impact assessments can play a key role in ensuring everyone’s rights are considered and adequately protected."

The news was also welcomed by Wendy Sinclair-Gieben, Chief Inspector of Prisons for Scotland, who agreed that the powers were necessary to protect the health of all those working in prisons as well as of prisoners, and to ensure the continued safe and effective operation of prisons.

"Applying these powers will help to reduce the prison population to manageable proportions and therefore reduce the risk of cross contamination to the NHS, SPS, and local authority staff", she said. "The consequent transmission to families and the community will also be reduced.

"Those who live and work in prison are a particularly vulnerable population. Although there has been a reduction in the prison population in recent weeks, staff working in prisons are still having to deal with a high number of prisoners routinely accommodated in double cells. Social distancing or self-isolation is impossible in these circumstances and the risks around virus transmission are inevitably higher."