Scotland's prison suicide inquiry system 'not fit for purpose'

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The system for investigating prison suicides in Scotland is not fit for purpose, according to analysis conducted by the parents of a woman who killed herself in the country’s only dedicated young offenders institution last year.

Linda and Stuart Allan believe their daughter Katie Allan, 21, was bullied by other prisoners at Polmont young offenders institution and repeatedly strip-searched by staff who failed to act on her self-harm wounds. The University of Glasgow student had been jailed for 16 months after she injured a teenage boy while drunk driving.

The family published a report on Tuesday that concludes: “The dominant culture within Scottish prisons is that suicide is inevitable.” It says this is reinforced by lengthy delays and a consistent absence of constructive recommendations in fatal accident inquiries (FAI), which are mandatory after any death in prison.

The Allans, with the help of the University of Glasgow, where Linda Allan is an honorary clinical professor, reviewed information published by the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) on 258 prisoner deaths between 2008 and 2018, cross-referencing this with causes of death and other information recorded in FAIs, where it was available.

Linda and Stuart Allan and their lawyer, Aamer Anwar
Linda and Stuart Allan and their lawyer, Aamer Anwar

Linda and Stuart Allan and their lawyer, Aamer Anwar (centre), speak to the press on Tuesday.Photograph: Andrew Milligan/PA


They found that as of December 2018, 67 families were still waiting for FAIs to take place, some relating to deaths dating back to 2014, while inquiries into prison suicides took the longest to complete: 25 months on average.

The report also found that of 16 inquiries into prison suicides, all related to prisoners who took their own lives within six months of being in custody, with three individuals doing so within 24 hours of entering the prison system. The majority of those had significant mental health needs and more than half had a history of suicide attempts, yet fewer than a third were placed on observations at the time of their death. Nearly half were under 30.

The analysis also found that six of these prisoners had no contact with a mental health nurse, although it is policy that every inmate is assessed by a healthcare professional when they arrive. The responsibility for healthcare in Scotland’s jails was transferred to the NHS in 2011, with the aim of ensuring vital information about prisoners’ mental health needs could be more readily available.

The report raises fresh concerns about the implementation of the SPS’s updated suicide prevention strategy, Talk to Me, in particular for at-risk young people, after the outcry last November over the death of William Lindsay, a vulnerable teenage boy who killed himself at Polmont within 48 hours of being remanded despite having been identified as a suicide risk.

The Allans’ lawyer, Aamer Anwar, said his clients had lost faith in the prison service. “They believe an FAI system is set up to fail families and hide what is truly happening,” he said. “Over half of those imprisoned today in Scotland’s prisons have definable mental health problems and prison is not fit for purpose for dealing with them.”

A spokesperson for the SPS said an independent review of mental health care at Polmont would be reporting in the next few months. “Staff take very seriously the responsibility they have to care for those sent to them by the courts,” they said. “We are absolutely transparent in recording deaths in custody and publish them on our website when next of kin have been notified, we have done so for many years.”

A Crown Office spokeswoman said: “The Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service [COPFS] is committed to the prompt investigation of deaths, but accepts that in some cases the time taken to complete a thorough investigation has been too long.” She said the COPFS was revising its investigation process.

In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or by email at jo@samaritans.org. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.

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