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by Andrew Learmonth
30 November 2021
Damning report calls for overhaul in prison death investigation

Damning report calls for overhaul in prison death investigation

The Scottish Prison Service has been accused of trying to “bury any hope for the truth” after a damning report criticised how deaths in custody are investigated. 

An independent review, commissioned by the Scottish Government following the suicides of Katie Allan, 21, and William Lindsay, 16, within four months of each other at Polmont young offenders institution, called for an overhaul of the system.

Recommendations included a new body, wholly independent of Scottish ministers, the Scottish Prison Service or the private prison operator and the NHS, to investigate deaths as soon as possible. 

The report said that as part of this process, a duty should be placed on the “Scottish Prison Service and other relevant institutions requiring the completion, retention and production of relevant information in their possession.”

That followed admissions from prison staff that they were reluctant to engage with families, FAIs and internal death in prison reviews as they felt “like they were on trial and being expected to convince people that their role in an incident did not contribute to it.”

The review was co-chaired by Wendy Sinclair-Gieben, chief inspector of prisons for Scotland, Professor Nancy Loucks, chief executive of the charity Families Outside, and Judith Robertson, chairwoman of the Scottish Human Rights Commission.

Sinclair-Gieben said: “In the time that this review has taken place, dozens of people have died in Scotland’s prisons and hundreds more have been left to deal with the associated grief, trauma and distress.

“It is clear from our review that systemic change is needed in how such deaths are responded to for both families and staff.

Prof Loucks added: “For too many families, the lack of information and answers drags on for months and even years.”

Stewart Taylor, whose son died in prison, was part of the review, chairing a group of families who had lost loved ones inside.

He said only one family in the group thought the Prison Service had “dealt with them in a compassionate and helpful way.”

“It quickly became abundantly clear that a system or uniform policy which clearly lays out procedures for dealing with such incidents across the prison estate in Scotland was either sadly lacking or not fit for purpose,” Taylor said.

Aamer Anwar, lawyer for the families of Katie Allan and William Lindsay, said: “The findings of the review called for by the families of Katie Allan and William Lindsay following their suicides, is a damning indictment of the Scottish Prison Service.

“For the last three years the families we represent have decried a prison system in crisis that has directly led to deaths.

“For far too long the SPS has known that no matter how catastrophic their failure in duty of care to prisoners, they will never face justice.

“The Scottish Government has to date failed to hold the SPS to account, but the question that arises now for Justice Minister Keith Brown and the Scottish Government is whether they will actually listen to their own experts.

“How many more families must set up campaigns simply to get the truth, whilst an unaccountable prison service cynically drags out a legal process to bury any hope for truth, never mind justice.”

A SPS spokesman said: “We recognise the profound emotional distress experienced by families when a loved one dies in custody and anything that can be done to provide information and engage with families is to be welcomed.”

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “We remain committed to making improvements to the response to, and experiences of, families impacted by a death in prison custody.”

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Read the most recent article written by Andrew Learmonth - Miners' Pardon: 'I knew I had done nothing wrong'

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