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BY TOM JACKSON, Head of Community Justice

In 1999, the average prison population across Scotland was just under 6,000. In 2018 it was 30% higher (at almost 7,800).  By early 2020, the average exceeded 8,000.  High population numbers are further pressured by an excessive “churn” with the majority of sentenced prisoners on short sentences and a disproportionate level of remand prisoners, creating a high volume of prison leavers, often with complex health, housing and care needs.

The Scottish Government expressed a desire to reduce the prison population, with its Programme for Scotland 2019-20 (September 2019) stating:

We are progressing action to tackle Scotland’s internationally high rate of imprisonment – the highest in Western Europe.

Concerns about high levels of imprisonment have regularly been part of parliamentary debate. However, despite measures seeking to reduce the use of imprisonment, achieving a significant reduction in prisoner numbers has proven elusive. A large fall in the number of young offenders held in custody being a notable exception.

The 2018-19 annual report of HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for Scotland noted:

The overcrowding across the prison estate, combined with staff absences, continues to have a detrimental impact.

Local concerns have focussed on the significant cost to the public purse of reoffending in the city (estimated £580m per annum in Glasgow), as well as the wider poverty impact and continued pressures on HMP Barlinnie. 

An event was organised in spring 2019 to review the makeup of the prison population and difficulties prison leavers face, allowing partners to look for opportunities to address these challenges.

The event identified perennial challenges of homelessness and access to benefits, coupled with the recent suspension of the SPS Throughcare Support Service and the uncertainty of funding for the Public Social Partnership Throughcare Services.

An agreed Pathfinder Project was established with an improvement plan, initially focusing on:

  • Prisoners on short term sentences less than 4 years within HMP Barlinnie.
  • 250 – 300 cohort in 2020/21 with intention to expand to all prison leavers returning to Glasgow.
  • Families of prisoners.

The pathfinder aims to reduce rates of reoffending by:

  • supporting individual resilience through improved access to housing and financial security;
  • protecting tenancies for those received at prison – Housing Options;
  • securing suitable housing in advance of an individual’s release date;
  • seamless and timeous access to Welfare Benefits and in particular Universal Credit, alongside increased awareness of changes to welfare benefits system;
  • increased support for families affected by imprisonment and increased awareness and uptake of support available;
  • identification of barriers whether they be system, process or cultural which prevent delivering even more significant outcomes for service users;
  • testing new ways of working and opportunities for wider application; and
  • addressing short term pressures on Barlinnie and enabling longer term thinking around interventions and prevention. 

When Covid19-related restrictions were imposed in March of 2020, while elements of the work were temporarily paused, the foundations and partnership established through the Pathfinder became the structure for planning Throughcare including for Early Release under legislation enacted by the Scottish Parliament which endorsed emergency powers to tackle the Coronavirus crisis.  The Coronavirus (Scotland) Act – Part 9.

This work will continue over 2020-2021 and beyond – WATCH THIS SPACE.

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