Number of deaths in Scottish prisons ‘nothing short of a massacre’

Written by Jenni Davidson on 2 April 2019 in News

The parents of Katie Allen, who took her own life in Polmont, have produced a report outlining the scale of the problem

Prison officer locks a cell - Image credit: Peter Macdiarmid/PA

The number of deaths in Scottish prisons is “nothing short of a massacre”, according to the parents of a young woman who killed herself in jail last year.

Katie Allen took her own life three months into a 16-month sentence in June 2018, after suffering bullying following her imprisonment in Polmont YOI for a hit and run while drunk.

Speaking at the Scottish parliament a year on from their daughter’s imprisonment, the family, along with their lawyer, Aamer Anwar, presented the findings of their own research into 258 prison deaths in Scotland and the lack of information provided to families about the circumstances of their loved ones’ deaths.

The research revealed that deaths in prison had increased from 19 in 2008 to 29 in 2018, while the percentage of prisoner deaths due to suicide had “rocketed” from 35 per cent to 50 per cent in the same 10-year period.

Allen’s parents called it a “hidden, invisible genocide” behind the doors of the prison cells and suggested Scotland effectively has the death penalty due to the lack of care for vulnerable prisoners and the failure to learn from previous deaths.

While 63 per cent of the prisoners who died had known mental health needs and 56 per cent had a history of suicide attempts, only 38 per cent had had contact with a mental health nurse and less than a third were under observation at the time of their death.

The research also revealed the extent to which families were having to wait for closure, with long delays to fatal accident inquiries into the deaths.

As of December 2018, 67 families were still waiting for FAIs into the deaths of their loved ones, with some dating back to 2014 and 2015.

In a statement, the Allen family said: “We are not interested in apportioning blame to any political party for this; all of us are responsible.

“The abhorrent way the media reports crime, the underfunding of our criminal justice system, the understaffed prisons, society need for retribution of crime, the failings of our mental health system.

“What we ask is simple – that in spite of all of this, government ministers have the courage to grasp the nettle and act upon the advice of decades of academics and experts who have offered solutions to this broken system.”

Anwar also highlighted a lack of legal representation for families, with many illegible for legal aid which “denied their voice and any meaningful role”.

Anwar said: “The absence of representation weakens the life-saving potential of FAIs and investigations by denying opportunities to interrogate the facts, highlight failings and identify measures to prevent future deaths.

“Silence until an FAI is not an option, memories fade, cover ups take place, and even when an FAI concludes there are no recommendations, words of condolences are expressed, no lessons are learned and more suicides will take place with the same excuses offered years later.

“The SPS treats prison suicides as ‘hidden dirty secrets’, but there is nothing inevitable about suicides.

“Over half of those imprisoned today have definable mental health problems and prison is not fit for purpose for dealing with them.”

Lib Dem justice spokesperson Liam Macarthur said there was a “self-harm epidemic” in Scotland’s prisons and the justice system had “failed family after family”.

He added that FAI system was “bureaucratic and broken”.

He said: “No more families should have to face agonising waits of up to a decade for answers about their loved ones deaths, or be asked to make a financial contribution towards this process.

“Families can’t have closure and the justice system can’t learn lessons, putting more lives in danger.”

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