MSP warns of emergency as number of assaults at Scottish prisons rises

An MSP has claimed that Scotland’s jails are in a “state of emergency” as figures indicate that the total number of prison assaults are at a five-year high.

Following a Freedom of Information request by the Scottish Liberal Democrats, figures indicate that there has been a rise in the number of assaults on prisoners by other prisoners, as well as assaults on staff by prisoners.

The total number of serious prisoner on prisoner assaults in Scottish prisons increased from 94 in 2017/18 to 135 in 2018/19, whilst assaults which caused either minor or no injuries rose from 2,120 to 2,995 over the same period.

In 2014/15, there was a total of 66 serious prisoner on prisoner assaults, and 1,778 assaults with minor or no injuries caused.

The largest increase in the number of serious assaults was recorded at HMP Kilmarnock, which saw prisoner on prisoner serious assaults rise by 14 from 2 in 2017/18 to 16 in the latest statistics.

HMP Perth saw the most significant decrease in this category over the same period, with a fall by 7 from 15 serious prisoner on prisoner assaults to 8 in 2018/2019.

The highest number of prisoner on prisoner assaults with either minor or no injuries caused was recorded at HMP Polmont – the number rose to 606 in 2018/19, an increase on the 518 for the previous year.

The number of serious assaults by prisoners on staff is significantly lower, with a total of 10 recorded in 2018/19 – down by four in 2017/18.

However, the total number of assaults by prisoners on staff that caused either minor or no injuries increased from 283 in 2017/18 to 410 in the most recent figures.

The Scottish Liberal Democrats have previously warned of overcrowding in Scottish prisons and the party has suggested that there are too few staff to handle the workload.

“These figures show that Scotland’s prisons are in a state of emergency,” said the party’s justice spokesman, Liam McArthur MSP.

“As the prison population surges, both they and staff are becoming less and less safe. The system can’t cope, as evidenced by the heightened levels of violence and self-harm.

“Imprisonment on this scale, which has been compared by experts to Texas, will inevitably have serious consequences in the long term.”

Last month, the Lib Dems highlighted a need for a recruiting drive for mental health support staff in Scottish prisons to be accelerated.

Mr McArthur added: “It isn’t the prison service’s fault. Huge numbers of people, many of whom have complex problems, are being sent to a place proven to worsen their likelihood of reoffending, in part because of the lack of more effective community-based options.

“Overworked prison staff have less time to work with individuals to help improve their prospects and are increasingly encountering unsafe situations.

“The current approach isn’t working for anyone. The seriousness of this situation and the need for an urgent step change needs to be recognised by the Justice Secretary (Humza Yousaf).”

A spokeswoman for the Scottish Prisons Service (SPS) said: “Prisons are mirrors of wider society and our prisons hold increasingly complex and challenging populations.

“We recognise the importance of providing a safe and secure environment for those in custody as well as for the men and women who work in our prisons.

“Given the nature of their work, prison staff can work with dangerous and difficult individuals and on occasions assaults on staff unfortunately do occur.

“However, one assault is one too many and it is our policy that all assaults on staff are reported to the appropriate authorities.

“SPS provides a range of support measures and interventions to staff who have been assaulted during the course of their duties.”

She added: “The numbers of individuals who come from a Serious and Organised Crime background in our communities is rising. The rivalries and tensions between these groups manifest themselves in targeted violence and managing this is an ongoing challenge.

“Our response to increasing levels of violence within our prisons is continually under review and is taken very seriously. A National Strategic Risk and Threat Group has been established by the SPS in response to increasing levels of violence.”

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “We ‎value the dedication and professionalism of prison staff and fully appreciate that the good order observed by the previous HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for Scotland is to their credit and commitment.

“The SPS is looking at the level of violence as it deals with increasingly complex prison populations, including serious and organised crime groups and those under the influence of unknown substances.

“We are also working closely with SPS to actively monitor the population and put in place contingency measures to ensure the safety and security of staff and people in its care.”