Scotland’s largest jail is so overcrowded and outdated that it could suffer a “catastrophic failure” at any time, its governor has said.
Barlinnie prison in Glasgow is running at 140% capacity with just under 1,400 prisoners when it was designed for 987.
A replacement for the 140-year-old jail was due to open in 2025 – but that has been pushed back to 2027.
Governor Michael Stoney said: “This prison can’t last that much longer. The infrastructure fails consistently.”
He told BBC Scotland’s Drivetime programme: “At some point it may be a catastrophic failure, by then it’s too late. We know that day is coming. A lot of my time is just trying to keep the prison functional. If dates like building and completion stretch further, then the risk gets greater year on year.”
The Scottish government has said it is committed to building a new safe and secure HMP Glasgow.
Scotland’s prisons are under the spotlight again after an Irish judge blocked a man’s extradition to Scotland on humanitarian grounds.
Judge Mr Justice Paul McDermott said Richard Sharples faced being locked up for 22 hours a day in less than three metres (10ft) of space.
He said Scottish authorities could not guarantee that Mr Sharples’ complex mental health needs could be met at either Barlinnie or Low Moss prisons.
And he raised fears that there was a “real and substantial risk of inhuman or degrading treatment”, The Times reported.
The Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) has said it was considering the terms of the ruling.
In 2020, the prisons watchdog, HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIPS), deemed Barlinnie to be no longer fit for purpose.
An inspection found overcrowding could be in breach of UN human rights agreements.
International inspection organisations have also condemned some of the facilities in the jail.
Barlinnie’s governor has praised his staff for keeping the prison running while under intense strain.
But he highlighted continued problems, including:
- Ever-stronger drugs being smuggled in
- Keeping “enemy” prisoners apart in confined spaces
- Assaults on staff breaking up prisoner violence
Michael Stoney also revealed shower facilities are so scarce that it can sometimes take all day to accommodate every prisoner.
He believes a move to a new HMP Glasgow – first approved by Glasgow City Council in 2020 – could lead to a 20% reduction in re-offending due to increased rehabilitation services.
But at the moment, he said the job of prison officers “had become harder” because of issues including the increased use of psychoactive substances among inmates.
Mr Stoney said: “These drugs are affecting them in a way we’ve never seen before. You’ve got an officer who has a great relationship with somebody and all of a sudden they’ve taken something and change character.
“Two days later when they come round and are back to a normal person, they either can’t remember what they’ve done of they’re very apologetic and teary because that’s not them.”
He added: “If we walked into A Hall just now and I showed you the must-keep-separate list, I don’t know how the staff do it – keeping all these people apart and still running the regime. The new prison design is creating all these opportunities to place people properly. They will reduce violence among the prison population themselves, and invariably you will reduce violence towards staff.”
‘Safe and secure accommodation’
The Scottish government said it was committed to replacing Barlinnie with a new HMP Glasgow to deliver safe and secure accommodation.
It said that estimated costs and timescale for the jail – to be built near Provan gas works – would be known when the final design was completed.
Mr Stoney believes a new fit-for-purpose facility on the 22-hectare site would have huge benefits for the prison population and the general public.
He said: “I have made bold inferences that we would reduce re-offending by the people that pass through our doors by about 20%.
“That’s because, if we are confident in our capacity and the professionalism of our staff and the care and compassion they have, they will make a huge difference if given the time.
“We have to be bold about it – we are getting a big investment and we have to be bold by saying we’ll give you a big return.”
Scottish Liberal Democrat justice spokesperson Liam McArthur MSP said: “Scottish Liberal Democrats have been highlighting for years the serious problems of overcrowding across Scotland’s prison estate. Michael Stoney’s comments are a damning indictment of the failure to replace Scotland’s largest prison within a reasonable timescale.
“The project to replace Barlinnie has turned into a farce. Earlier estimates, costs and timescales have been abandoned and replaced with a holding statement.
“We know that overcrowding has led to spiralling rates of self-harm and puts prisoners and prison staff at risk.
“While a replacement prison is being developed, the government must provide resources to support staff and ensure that high standards of safety are met and maintained. This is the only way to successfully rehabilitate people, reduce re-offending and build safer communities.”