Assessment of compliance with the Code of Practice for Statistics: Scottish prison population statistics

13 January 2023
Last updated:
12 January 2023

Clarity and insight

1.14 The statistics provide vital information on a key policy area and fill a long-standing gap in Scottish official statistics. Discontinuation of the previous National Statistics had a significant impact on users, so it is essential that they continue to be published, to allow Scottish Government and the public to monitor trends in the Scottish prison population.

1.15 The statistical bulletin is informative and engaging, with detailed and impartial commentary and visualisations that aid interpretation of the statistics. The 2020-21 bulletin is clear on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the prison population. For example, monthly and quarterly summary data are used to illustrate in-year changes in the population and the criminal justice system response to public health measures is explained. Background information about legislative and policy changes across the criminal justice system allows users to contextualise short- and longer-term changes in the prison population.

1.16 Granularity is one the key strengths of these statistics. Data are broken down by a range of demographic and other characteristics including age, gender, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, and prison establishment and legal status. Age, gender and ethnicity, and the interactions between them, are particularly helpful for understanding changes in the demographics of the prison population over time. Some users told us they would like to see more intersectional analysis. The team is working with colleagues to provide as many breakdowns as possible. For example, for the 2021-22 statistics (released in November 2022) it added further breakdowns of young people to interactive analytical tool (see 1.21).

1.17 The bulletin contains some helpful guidance for users, particularly on interpreting trends in the context of the pandemic, but Scottish Government could go further with its advice. For instance, to support appropriate use of the statistics and data by all users, we recommend that the team develops guidance on what questions can and cannot be answered using the statistics. Additionally, in places, the commentary or guidance could be improved or simplified to enhance clarity, for instance, by being clear about relative versus absolute changes in the prison population and using plain English for advice on interpreting the statistics.

1.18 The users we spoke to identified several gaps in the statistics, such as the lack of information about sentence progression and history of care experience. Some of these gaps may be filled by linking prisoner data with other data sources (see 1.24). There is a wealth of information on PR2 that currently is not included in the official statistics, and we encourage Scottish Government to work with SPS to explore other aspects of the prison population on which it might be able to add insight (see also 1.20). It is good that the team is considering producing of a series of one-off articles, to examine certain subsets of the prison population or aspects of the data in greater depth, such as longer-term and life sentence prisoners.

1.19 The bulletin signposts users to other related statistics and sources of information about the prison population, including SPS weekly population snapshots, SPS research reports from the Scottish Prisoner Survey, and other Scottish Government criminal justice statistics. The technical manual contains a link to SPS statistics on deaths in prisons, an important dimension of the prison population. The team added further information about other sources to the 2021-22 statistical bulletin, including information on the comparability of JAS’s monthly reports and the Council of Europe’s SPACE-I reports (which provide international comparisons), and SPS’s quarterly Public Information Pages.

1.20 At present, the Scottish prison statistics and data landscape is somewhat uncoordinated. In addition to the official statistics produced by Scottish Government, SPS produces its own quarterly performance report which covers similar areas to the official statistics. This means that there are multiple narratives about the prison population in Scotland, and an associated risk that the management information undermines the official statistics.

Requirement 1: To enhance coherence and insight, and minimise the risk of undermining the official statistics, Scottish Government should:

  1. work collaboratively with SPS to explore if they can produce more joined-up statistics about the prison population in Scotland.
  2. add links to other related statistics, such as homelessness statistics and equivalent prison population statistics for England and Wales, and Northern Ireland.
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