SCOTLAND managed to avert an "explosion" of coronavirus cases in its prisons by reducing inmate populations, a new report has revealed.

The HM Chief Inspector's Annual Report 2019-20 describes the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic as the most "significant event" facing Scotland, which triggered a paradigm shift.

Work to reduce prison populations during the outbreak was praised, claiming "decisive action to minimise risks" resulted in fewer deaths than comparable populations.

Wendy Sinclair-Gieben, HM chief inspector of prisons for Scotland, said: "I particularly welcomed the rapid and robust actions taken to swiftly reduce the size of the prison population through reduced court activity, emergency early release and in some measure the increased use of Home Detention Curfew.

"The decisive action to minimise risks has meant that there has been no explosion of Covid-19 infections in prisons, as feared, and far fewer deaths than in comparator populations."

She added: "I would like to strongly urge however that alternatives to remand or custodial sentences, currently being explored, are expedited."

The HM Inspectorate of Prisons for Scotland paper also found the country faces a "major reputational issue" over its Europe-leading incarceration rates.

It reports the average daily jail population rose "sharply" in 2019/20 despite fewer people being imprisoned.

Almost 25% of inmates awaiting trial were found not to have access to opportunities which could reduce the chances of future criminal behaviour.

Sinclair-Gieben said: "Scotland's incarceration rate is one of the highest in Europe. This is also a major reputational issue for Scotland; we are the country that incarcerates more people per capita than any other European country."

The average daily population in Scotland's prisons rose from 7464 in 2017/18 to 8195 in 2019/20.

A total of 17,294 people experienced imprisonment for all or part of 2019/20, representing a fall of around 15% since 2010/11 when the figure was 20,407.

Sinclair-Gieben praised efforts by the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) to manage additional population safely, noting that in all inspections throughout the year staff and prisoners regularly reported feeling safe.

Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf commented: "We welcome HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for Scotland's annual report which recognises our prisons are generally well run and stable and as a country we can take pride in how our prisons are operating.

"This is thanks in large part to the hard work and dedication of prison staff who have forged positive relationships with prisoners and who report feeling safe.

"We continue to monitor the prison population and are actively considering what further action is required to both reduce the use of imprisonment and maintain a lower prison population.

"Prior to the pandemic, we took a number of steps to help increase the use of community-based interventions, which are often a more effective and appropriate way of dealing with offending behaviour, and to reduce the use of imprisonment."