Archbishop calls on government to act as prison population soars

The Archbishop of St Andrews & Edinburgh has called on politicians to tackle Scotland’s growing prisoner population problem after it was revealed last week that prisoner numbers are at a near record high

Archbishop Leo Cushley made the plea to ‘ensure fair and humane treatment of prisoners’ after a report from Holyrood’s Justice Committee to the Scottish Government said the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) is under substantial pressure which is not sustainable.

Archbishop Cushley said: “Our prisons, and the way we treat our prisoners, tell us a lot about the social mores of our society.

“There has recently been a dramatic increase in the amount of time people spend in jail. The numbers of prisoners released on Home Detention Curfews (HDC) has also declined dramatically, meaning a further increase in the prison population.

“The length of time that we are putting people in prison for in Scotland seems, therefore, to be a measure of a distorted politics or at the very least an aversion to risk.

“As well as the effect it has on prisoners themselves, this has in turn led to huge pressure on Scottish Prison Service (SPS) staff and our prison system.”


A Scottish Government review was carried out following the murder of a man by a prisoner on HDC. It means many HDC applications are now rejected.

Colin McConnell, the chief executive of the SPS, recently told MSPs on Holyrood’s Public Audit Committee about ‘serious day-to-day operational pressures’ on the prison service.

A 2018/19 Audit Scotland report found prisons to be operating well over capacity, posing a threat to safety and sustainability.

It stated that prisoner numbers increased by nearly nine per cent in one year to 8,212, and are set to rise further.

It also described ‘profound challenges’ including significant increases in assaults by prisoners on staff and other prisoners. Additionally, stress-related sickness among staff rose by nearly one third in 2018/19.

Mr McConnell told MSPs that the only way to accommodate a rise in prisoners was by ‘doubling-up’—putting two prisoners in every cell.

Minimum space

However, in the report to the Scottish Government last week, it was revealed that 90 per cent of prisoners in Barlinnie are doubling up in cells designed for one person, breaching the minimum space standard of 4 square metres per prisoner.

Archbishop Cushley’s comments come following Prisoners Week, in which he encouraged more Catholics to take part in a prison visiting project at HMP Edinburgh.

He said: “Scotland has one of the highest imprisonment rates in Europe, and yet I’m fairly confident that most of us in Scotland aspire to live in a fair, liberal, decent and enlightened country.

“It is undeniable that there are many people who have suffered as victims of crime and they deserve justice.

“But we ought to balance that by believing that people can be helped to change, to be rehabilitated and safely returned to society. That also means that we ought not to turn our prisons into a kind of revenge by leaving people in prison interminably.

“Imaginative new ways are being tried in different countries not too far from here that could help us think of more humane and effective means to deal with prisoners while helping those who serve in our prisons.”

This article first appeared in the Scottish Catholic Observer, Friday 6th December. By Colette Cooper.