Shortcomings found in Scottish police and prison establishments

30 October 2019 by

Report to the Government of the United Kingdom on the visit to the United Kingdom carried out by the CPT from 17 to 25 October 2018

The Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) recently published a report on police and prison facilities in Scotland after its visit in 2018. 

This was an ad hoc visit and it aimed to evaluate the developments made since the CPT’s last visit to Scotland in 2012. The CPT’s delegation visited five police custody facilities and five prisons across Scotland. The report covers several areas, including the treatment of detained persons in police facilities, the conditions of male prisons, inmates in segregation and those on remand. It also focused on female prisons in general, and healthcare. 

Police custody facilities

Overall, the CPT’s delegation was satisfied by the conditions and treatment in the police facilities that it visited. Every detained person that they interviewed reported that they had been correctly treated whilst in custody. However, an area of concern was the number of detainees who made allegations that they had suffered ill-treatment at the time of their arrest. Around one third of the detained persons alleged that they experienced excessively tight handcuffing and physical abuse by police officers. Several also claimed that they experienced this treatment despite not resisting arrest. The delegation reported that many of those making the allegations had visible signs of injury, such as bruises, scratches, and swelling.

Other issues highlighted by the report concerned some of the safeguards against ill-treatment in police facilities. For example, although the right to have access to a lawyer works well in practice in the majority of instances, the CPT expressed its concern surrounding the ability of the police to delay a person’s access to a lawyer.  The police in Scotland have the power to delay access to a lawyer of the person’s choice in exceptional circumstances if they deem it is ‘necessary in the interests of the investigation or the prevention of crime’.

Whilst the CPT recognises that there are some circumstances where this action will be required, it stated that those in detention should not be completely denied access to a lawyer during this time. It recommended that detained persons have access to another independent lawyer in these circumstances. The CPT was particularly concerned about this issue as it also highlighted during its last visit in 2012. It was especially disappointed given the introduction of the Criminal Justice Scotland Act 2016, which failed to address this problem.

Furthermore, the report states that access to a doctor is still not guaranteed, whilst the process of the identification and recording of injuries needs improvement. These safeguards are particularly important considering the increase in the number of allegations made by detained persons that they had been assaulted upon their arrest. In this regard, the report also heavily criticises the complaints procedure for reporting assault or excessive of use force, with both the accessibility and independence of the procedure being seriously questioned.


With regards to male prisons, overcrowding in several of the establishments visited was found to be a serious problem. The number of male inmates in Scotland is around 8,000, with Scottish prisons having a combined capacity of 7,9000. The report found that by the end of 2018, nine out of Scotland’s fifteen prisons were operating beyond their maximum capacity. This is because Scotland has the second highest incarceration rate in western Europe, behind only England and Wales, and despite many government initiatives, the prison population is not decreasing. 

Overcrowding has a severely negative impact on conditions in prison establishments. The CPT reports that even when prisons operate at 95% of their capacity, this makes it ‘almost impossible’ for prisons to function and ensure respect for the safety and human dignity of both inmates and staff.

For example, the delegation found that the conditions in Barlinnie, the largest and busiest prison in Scotland, have deteriorated since its 2012 visit due to overcrowding. Many prisoners live in extremely cramped conditions and have to share cells originally intended to be occupied by one person. Overcrowding has also meant that there are not enough prison staff, resulting in the majority of prisoners in Barlinnie spending 22 to 23 hours per day locked in their cells. 

The report also found serious drug problems in the majority of the prisons visited. The CPT discovered that large amounts of so-called ‘synthetic drugs’ are entering prisons easily as they are hard to detect. Prisoners therefore had easy access to them, which had a negative impact on daily life in prison. For example, drugs are a contributing factor in the rising levels of both inter-prisoner and inmate-on-staff violence.

Regarding female prisons, the largest concerns raised by the report were those about the treatment of prisoners in segregation. The delegation encountered several women with serious mental health issues and should not have been in a prison environment, especially in segregation, where staff lacked mental health and health care training. They therefore required urgent treatment in a psychiatric facility. 


As highlighted by the UK’s National Preventive Mechanism’s response to the report, ‘even in countries committed to providing safe and humane detention conditions, serious problems within detention can still arise.’

The CPT’s report demonstrates that work must be done in order to improve police and prison establishments in Scotland. Several problems exist, including those that were present during the CPT’s last visit in 2012. This is despite on and a number of government initiatives aimed at tackling issues such as overcrowding, drugs and the needs of women in custody, In its response to, the UK Government committed to addressing many of the issues highlighted in the report. However, fixing problems such as reducing the number of people in prison is complex as it requires a shift in the attitude towards the justice system. Scotland therefore faces a difficult task in solving several of these issues by the time of the CPT’s next visit. 

The full report, along with the executive summary and the UK Government’s response, can be accessed here.

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