Prison inspectors have described overcrowding at HMP Low Moss as an ‘enduring crisis’ in a report released last week, with the population at one of Scotland’s newest prisons ‘far exceeding design capacity’. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons for Scotland (HMIPS) carried out an inspection of the all-male prison in Bishopbriggs, East Dunbartonshire, from January 31st to February 11th earlier this year. The prison, one of 13 operated by the Scottish Prison Service (SPS), was rebuilt in 2012 after its original buildings were demolished in 2007.
Inspectors raised specific concerns about ‘Project 100’, an initiative which aimed to increase the prison’s operational capacity of 784 prisoners by 100 spaces in response to Scotland’s growing prison population. The additional 100 spaces were created by placing bunk beds in cells designed for single occupancy, leading to cells that were ‘too small accommodating two prisoners’, and ‘not adequate for two people to live comfortably side by side’. This double-cellular accommodation became ‘particularly troubling’ during the Covid-19 pandemic, ‘when time out of cell was at a premium’. Inspectors noted that infection control protocols had violated imates’ right to a minimum of an hour’s outdoor exercise each day, with isolating prisoners often granted just one hour of fresh air every three days. Inspectors highlighted the constricted time out of cell as a human rights issue, but also indicated that the problem had been ‘addressed and resolved’ during the inspection.
Inspectors also raised serious concerns in relation to human rights in other areas of assessment at Low Moss. Inspectors wrote that effective accountability based on human rights standards in the prison was inconsistent: complaint forms were inaccessible to prisoners, and while human rights were not completely ignored, there was ‘minimal’ reference to standards, rules, and human rights-based criteria. Inspectors were additionally troubled by the potential for prisoners to be discouraged or intimated by staff not to pursue complaints. The prison had adopted a practice of keeping the relevant forms behind a staff desk, forcing inmates to request them from prison staff, which was described as ‘poor practice’. ‘Prisoners should be able to freely access complaint forms without the need to discuss the nature of their complaint with staff’, inspectors wrote. While staff pointed out drawers where the relevant forms were supposed to be freely accessible, these were empty at the time of inspection.
Healthcare needs and assessment within the prison came as the lowest-graded quality indicator in the report, receiving an assessment marker of ‘poor performance’. Between 70 and 80 prisoners over a three-month period had missed secondary care appointments due to a ‘deeply troubling’ lack of transport provision, presenting a ‘continued and significant risk to prisoners’ health and wellbeing’. Prisoner transport is run by GEOAmey, a private company that won the contract for the Scottish Court Custody and Prisoner Escorting Service (SCCPES) in 2019. Inspectors urged GEOAmey and the SPS to provide a solution ‘without delay’ to ensure that prisoners get to hospital appointments when required.
The report made clear that GEOAmey’s failings relating to transport provision was ‘an ongoing national issue’ across Scotland’s wider prison landscape, and had resulted in a number of other problems beyond missed hospital appointments. The ‘continued issue with transport provided by GEOAmey’ also included delays in prisoner transfers, meaning that due to an absence of healthcare staff upon late arrival, some prisoners were unable to access appropriate healthcare services. Inspectors noted that this issue has been escalated to GEOAmey’s Chief Executive.
Concluding the report, inspectors wrote that ‘the inspection undoubtedly highlighted a number of issues where improvement is necessary and where, with creative thinking, the limitations of the existing pandemic are not an insurmountable barrier to progress’. Despite this recommendation, at the time of inspection, there were ‘no plans to end ‘Project 100’’. Although the Scottish Government’s aim is to use custody ‘only where there is no alternative’, Scotland’s prison population rate is the highest in the UK and is among the highest in Europe.