The Scottish Government has proposed new regulations for prisons, including dropping the minimum number of showers for inmates to two a week, as it seeks to tackle the Covid-19 outbreak.
It comes after the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) announced on Tuesday that there are two confirmed coronavirus cases in the country’s jails and a second prisoner has died after showing symptoms of the virus.
Francis McCarthy, 59, died after being taken to hospital from HMP Low Moss with suspected coronavirus.
McCarthy, who died on Monday, was sentenced to life after being convicted in 1985 of murdering 26-year-old Thomas McKirdy, from Paisley.
Last week, the serial sex offender John Angus, 66, who was being held at HMP Edinburgh, became the first Scottish prisoner to die after contracting the virus.
Around 30 people are self-isolating across the prison estate as part of measures to tackle the pandemic.
Holyrood’s Justice Committee has written to Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf for clarity on several points of the new regulations.
The changes to the rules were laid down as a Scottish statutory instrument (SSI), which allow laws to be changed in certain ways without requiring an act of the Scottish Parliament.
The changes would limit the minimum number of times prison officials must ensure inmates bathe to two each week, compared to the current standard of every other day.
A document published alongside the SSI states the minimum requirements under European prison rules is two showers a week.
Under the new regulations, officials could also confine prisoners to their cells for 14 days on the advice of a healthcare professional if an inmate is required to self isolate.
The period could also be increased by a further 14 days should SPS staff deem it necessary.
The regulations will also allow for individual prison governors to suspend visiting, work and recreation as well as curtailing the distribution of books and newspapers to inmates.
Justice Committee convener Margaret Mitchell has questioned the move.
In her letter to the Justice Secretary, she said: “Whilst we recognise that this is still in line with minimum standards and SPS say they will use this rule if necessary, is it not more important during this health crisis to maximise standards of personal hygiene?”
She also asked for clarification on how many prison staff have been absent due to coronavirus, along with what is being done to allow visits to go ahead virtually and what consultations had been been done with prison and NHS staff before the SSI was drawn up.
The Tory MSP also raised the issue of mental health and well-being of prisoners in her letter, telling the Justice Secretary: “The impact of all of the rule changes is likely to have a major impact on the environment within our prisons.”
She asked: “What steps are being taken to monitor the mental health and well-being of prison staff and prisoners to minimise stress, sickness and absence rates, increased risk of suicide or self-harm, etc?”
Timescales for dealing with complaints from prisoners will also be extended if MSPs approve the SSI.
Emma Jardine, a policy and public affairs adviser for Howard League Scotland, told the PA news agency: “With the Scottish Parliament being on recess and limited information being released by SPS, Howard League Scotland has been calling for much greater scrutiny of these regulations.
“These rules give an enormous amount of discretion to individual prison governors, which we need to ensure is balanced by appropriate levels of oversight.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The wellbeing, safety and human rights of all those who live in our prisons is a priority for the Scottish Government and the Scottish Prison Service. The Cabinet Secretary for Justice welcomes the committee’s scrutiny of the rules and will respond in full to its questions in due course.
“The SPS have already taken a number of steps to ensure social distancing and public health advice is adhered to and measures have been introduced to mitigate the impact of social isolation for those in its care.
“The Prisons and Young Offenders Institutions (Scotland) Amendment Rules 2020 have been made to support SPS’s response to the exceptional pressures facing prisons during the current coronavirus pandemic. The amendments will enable SPS staff to focus on key functions and to help protect the health and safety of staff and prisoners. They are time limited to the duration of the outbreak and will only be used if absolutely necessary.”
Earlier, Scottish Prison Service (SPS) spokesman Tom Fox said the prison population is at its lowest since March 2018, at 7,339, down 821 on the same week in 2019, which he told BBC Good Morning Scotland is helping maintain a “greater degree of social isolation”.
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