Is enough being done to prevent deaths in custody?
Scotland’s sole female-only jail, Cornton Vale, has to many come to symbolise everything that is wrong with the country’s prison system.
Overcrowded and under-resourced, a commission set up by the Scottish Government just last month called for the institution to be demolished.
The latest in a long list of tragedies to take place at the prison occurred last week when a teenage inmate was found dead in her cell.
Sarah Mitchell is understood to have hanged herself at the prison, near Stirling, just months after being sent there.
The 19 year old was convicted of wilful fireraising at Dumfries Sheriff Court in December and was sentenced to two consecutive terms of 12 and 14 months.
Media reports said Mitchell started the two fires in a matter of months – both of which led to her having to be rescued.
She was taken to hospital unconscious after the first fire in June and three months later she was again taken to Dumfries Infirmary for treatment after a fire at the same address.
Her solicitor, Gavin Orr, told the court in November that she was a very troubled young woman and had been considering what had gone wrong with her life, but despite his pleas, the teenager was given a custodial sentence.
Her death comes just weeks after Scotland’s inspector of prisons described conditions at the jail as “unsatisfactory”.
The case has already reignited a debate on female offending and the suitability of imposing custodial sentences. Campaigners hope the tragedy can help shine a light on the issue of deaths in custody and at least question whether enough is being done to help inmates, the majority of whom are said to suffer from mental health problems and alcohol and/or drug dependency.
The subject of deaths in custody, particularly self-inflicted, is a topic that receives sporadic coverage – most notably ten years ago when 11 women committed suicide in Cornton Vale between 1997 and 2002.
Figures released by the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) under Freedom of Information laws show there were 191 deaths in the country’s jails between 2001 and 2010 – 106 were classed as ‘natural causes’ with the remaining 85 suicides. One third of suicides were at Scotland’s most populated prison, Barlinnie, in Glasgow.
Put in context, the rate of suicide amongst prisoners in Scotland in 2010 was more than double that of the general population, which stood around 15 per 100,000. In England and Wales in the same year, the number of prison suicides was as high as 68 per 100,000.
Deborah Coles is the co-director of the London-based charity Inquest, the only charity in England and Wales that provides free advice to bereaved people on contentious deaths in custody. She hopes the recent death at Cornton Vale motivates a political debate on deaths in custody in Scotland.
“I would hope that when a death like this happens it generates questions in the Scottish Parliament, I hope that people will be asking if prisons are protecting human rights,” she said.
“I think one of the problems in Scotland is there is a lack of public awareness and scrutiny of the number of deaths in custody and also there does seem to be a dearth of support for families who have to go through a fatal accident inquiry. That has been an ongoing concern of this organisation.
“Many years ago, we had hoped to try and establish a similar kind of organisation in Scotland because we recognise there is no equivalent and one of the most important things when these deaths happen is you need to have proper public scrutiny into what happened and why and what should be done to prevent similar deaths in the future.
“Cornton Vale is an extremely good example of why that scrutiny is needed. How in 2012 are you imprisoning a vulnerable woman into an institution that is already known not to be able to keep women safe?”
In Scotland, a fatal accident inquiry (FAI) is held following a death in custody and is overseen by a sheriff. One of the main complaints relating to FAIs into deaths in the Scottish prison system is they often take too long to and recommendations made by sheriffs are not always implemented across the entire system.
A study of 97 deaths in Scottish prisons in the period 1999-2003 by Cambridge professor Sheila Bird found that some FAIs do not report for well over a year after the death of a prisoner.
Although the overall issue of deaths in custody is rarely examined as a whole, media coverage is regularly given to specific cases.
Just two months ago, it was reported that a prisoner who died from meningitis could have been saved if jail staff had done more to help him.
The FAI was told Andrew Sorley, 40, banged on the door of his cell at Kilmarnock prison pleading for help, but he did not get any medical attention until more than 12 hours later.
Sorley, who was serving a sentence for assault, died at Glasgow’s Southern General Hospital in June 2008. He was seen by a prison nurse on 16 June but was only taken to hospital the following morning when he was found unconscious. Sheriff Seith Ireland said a “reasonable precaution” would have been for the nurse to check up on Sorley within two hours of first seeing him.
Another FAI, in 2009, concluded that the death of a Shetland man in his prison cell in Aberdeen could have been prevented.
Dylan Stickle, 25, hanged himself at Craiginches prison. He was assessed as being of “no apparent risk” of suicide or self harm, but had made previous attempts.
The FAI found his death might have been prevented if admission procedures had been properly implemented. Stickle was in Craiginches for the purpose of obtaining reports prior to sentence for a breach of the peace charge.
The inquiry heard he had tried to hang himself during a previous stay in the same prison and this led to Stickle being flagged as at risk. But the inquiry was told that on his re-admission, not enough attention was paid to Stickle’s records.
A new law was passed last year, meaning police and other authorities can now be prosecuted over deaths in custody in England, Scotland and Wales.
The Legislation means police forces, the MoD, UK Border Agency and private firms managing people held in custody can be prosecuted for corporate manslaughter.
Examples could include deaths during an immigration removal.
Unions representing prison workers are quick to point out that staff can also be badly affected by deaths in custody. Phil Fairlie, of the Prison Officers Association Scotland, said the experience of deaths in custody is very traumatic for staff.
It is not only prison staff who have custody care responsibilities, suspects are also held in police cells and immigration detainees are held at removal centres across the UK.
Last month the Tayside Joint Branch Board put forward a motion to the Scottish Police Federation annual conference asking that the Government be lobbied to remove custody care functions and responsibilities from the police service.
It said: “We see some of the most vulnerable members of society coming through our custody suites, and the majority of prisoners are deemed to be high risk. Police officers working in custody suites have to deal with prisoners who are suicidal, have mental health issues, are intoxicated, are drug dependent, have complicated medical conditions or who require to be kept under constant observation. Often our prisoners have all of the problems.
“It is no surprise, then, that there continue to be deaths in police custody, albeit less than in previous years. The reduction is down to a significant focus of our resources, training and attention to the care of prisoners. Tayside Branch Board do not believe that this function is a good use of our increasingly stretched police resources.”
It added: “This is an opportunity for the Scottish Police Federation to make a stand on an issue that can affect us all. There continue to be deaths in custody each year and anyone who has been through that experience will know how traumatic and awful that can be. We have an opportunity through this motion to protect our members from such events and to provide a better and more efficient service to all.”
The motion was narrowly defeated, by 57 per cent to 43 per cent.
The SPS said it has had a suicide risk management strategy, ACT2Care, in place since 2005. It said prisoners are also provided with information regarding suicide as part of their induction into prison, and there is a peer support scheme where selected prisoners are trained by Samaritans.
But Coles insists that prison staff are not properly equipped to cope with the major challenges.
She added: “We are currently facing unprecedented cuts and that means things like training for officers is going to suffer, the essential training that is needed to identify things like mental health problems.
“Staff in prisons are already ill-equipped to deal with people who are ill, particularly people with mental health problems. They do not have the training and expertise to do that work which is why it is an unfair situation to put them in. Having said that, when someone is sent to prison they are owed a duty of care so they have that responsibility. It is almost incumbent on the governors to speak out if they don’t think they can offer a safe environment.”
It was just last month that a commission into female offending, led by former Lord Advocate Elish Angiolini, called for wholesale change to the system – stating that jail is the wrong place for a large proportion of inmates.
The tragic case of Sarah Mitchell provides a blunt illustration of this. Whether it triggers a wider examination into deaths in custody and questions if enough is being done to prevent them remains to be seen.