Hundreds of prisoners freed early without being tested for Covid-19

HUNDREDS or prisoners were freed from Scotland’s jails in the early stages of the pandemic without being tested for Covid, MSPs have heard.

Scottish Prison Service chief Teresa Medhurst told Holyrood’s criminal justice committee that 348 prisoners were freed from custody early in May 2020 and were not tested to ensure they were not carrying the virus.

The prisoners were released under emergency powers used by the Scottish Government with more than 40% going on to commit new crimes including assault causing severe injury and assault which endangered life. 

Former Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf announced the move in a bid to free up more cells for single-use occupancy as a way to prevent the spread of coronavirus around prisons. Only those who sentenced to 18 months or less and had 90 days or less left to serve were eligible for the pandemic early release scheme.

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“We already know that more than 40 per cent of the prisoners freed early by SNP ministers went on to quickly reoffend,” said Scottish Conservative shadow community safety minister Russell Findlay.

“To now discover that none were subject to Covid testing is incredible and exposes a recklessness that will surely have put people at risk.”

The figures were revealed in response to a question at the committee hearing this morning from Mr Findlay who had asked if prisoners who had been released early were tested beforehand.

Ms Medhurst responded: “The testing regime wasn’t in place at the time Mr Findlay so testing wasn’t available.”

The development follows revelations that hospital patients were who had tested positive for Covid 19 were moved into care homes during the early stages of the pandemic. 

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In October 2020, Public Health Scotland revealed that dozens of people who had tested positive for Covid-19 were discharged from wards into care homes in Scotland.

The analysis found no statistical evidence that discharges of hospital patients — including those found to have the virus and thousands more not tested — had caused outbreaks in care homes between March and May that year.

But the confirmation of transfers of people infected with coronavirus sparked renewed criticism of the Scottish Government’s record in the early stages of the pandemic, when health boards sought to find capacity in hospitals for an expected increase of coronavirus patients.

Meanwhile, at the justice committee today MSPs were also told it is “unfathomable” that Scotland’s remand prisoner rates are so high compared to England and Wales,

Emma Jardine of Howard League Scotland said the rates of remand prisoners in Scotland had risen sharply during the pandemic.

She said 27% of those in Scottish prisons were on remand compared to 16% in England and Wales at the end of 2021.

Ms Jardine said alternatives to custody need to be better funded.

She said: “It’s already been acknowledged that we need to do something about this quickly, and it needs to be something of significance.

“It’s unfathomable that the remand rates are so high compared to England and Wales.”

She continued: “We need to mark cases more quickly, we shouldn’t be remanding anyone who is unlikely to receive a custodial sentence.

“We need to make better use of non-custodial bail options, they need to be adequately source-funded.

“We know the answers to these things and I think the committee knows the answers to these things.

“It’s a case of bold actions rather than bold visions, I think.”

Medhurst said there had been a “significant shift” in the size of the remand population compared to before the pandemic.

“At the same time as the demand population has risen, the short-term population has reduced,” she said.

“Although people are spending longer periods of time on remand, I had anticipated we might experience some disruption or unrest as a consequence, that hasn’t actually proven to be the case.

“And to be honest, I’m not sure why. But there hasn’t been any kind of pushback from those who are affected.”

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