ALEX Salmond’s government in 2008 feared prisoners could sue ministers due to overcrowding, cabinet papers have revealed.

In the first year of the SNP’s time in charge, the prison population reached an all time high in Scotland, heaping pressure on the system and overcrowding jails.

According to cabinet papers released by National Records of Scotland (NRS), the number of prisoners in Scottish facilities was 7736 in April 2008, and it would rise above 8000 before the end of the year, despite an operating capacity of 6625.

In a cabinet meeting on May 6, ministers were told prisoners could mount a successful challenge under the European Convention of Human Rights.

The National: Alex Salmond

Minutes from the meeting said: “This had put severe pressure on the estate, and on [the Scottish Prison Service] contingency arrangements: there was no spare capacity that could be used for the handling of any unexpected emergency.

“Additionally, there was a possibility that prisoners might be able to mount a successful challenge to current conditions under ECHR.”

In response to the pressure, then justice secretary Kenny MacAskill proposed the passing of secondary legislation, which would create a short-term release programme for prisoners to be used if overcrowding became unmanageable.

But, he warned, there would have to be a work element involved in the release, otherwise prisoners’ living costs would have to be paid by the Government because they are ineligible for benefits – something he conceded would have “significant presentational issues”.

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A paper put to ministers ahead of the meeting said that for every 100 prisoners in the early release programme, £6000 would have to be paid in discharge grants and £8000 weekly in living costs.

The paper went on to say “very few of the measures I am proposing will be easy to sell – either politically or to the public”.

MacAskill said “tabloid media” would slam the Government as “soft” on crime and “anti-prison”, while it would become easier for members of the former Labour-Liberal Democrat Scottish government to distance themselves from the problem.

In its discussions, the cabinet said the presentational issues were “significant”.

The minutes said: “In order that the Government should not be perceived to be paying prisoners for early release, it would be essential to ensure that [community integration licences] be linked to work-based placements in the community and that these placements be seen as an effective form of rehabilitation that promoted the value of community sentences.”

The most recent figures for Scotland’s prison population, published in December, showed the average daily number was 7422 in 2022-23.