CAMPAIGNERS claim the number of preventable deaths in Scottish prisons is still “horrific”, despite political pledges to address systemic failures after a number of high-profile deaths in custody.

Last May, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons for Scotland (HMCIPS) published recommendations to improve mental health services, following a review ordered by Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf in response to the deaths of 21-year-old Katie Allan and 16-year-old William Lindsay. Both took their own lives in Polmont Young Offenders Institution in 2018. In November, Yousaf also announced an independent review into the handling of deaths in prison.

However, campaigners including Linda Allan – Katie Allan’s mother – said that despite all the rhetoric, not enough action had been taken to stop preventable deaths in Scottish prisons. Allan, who has been involved in researching prison deaths since her daughter died in June 2018, claimed transparency had still not been adequately improved.

Official figures for 2019 now detail the medical cause of 21 deaths, information not previously made available. They include three deaths by hanging, one by asphyxia, another by overdose and one “unascertained”, as well as others from cancer and heart problems. But official data is still only available until August.

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Over the festive period, five people died – including one man allegedly murdered in Low Moss. It is understood two were from “natural causes”. Though the deaths were announced on the SPS website on January 6 – without details of the cause – they have not yet been added to official figures.

Allan said: “The suicide rate for 2019 remains horrific. Despite trying to raise awareness last year, a 28-year-old woman died after just two months [in custody]. A 27-year-old man on remand died just 19 days after admission to custody. The mantra of ‘every death in custody is a tragedy’ is frankly insulting.

“Really not much has changed. Last year the Cabinet secretary told us that the Scottish Prison Service would improve publicly available information. In England, the data is robust and available immediately. The SPS [since 2019] record suspected cause of death, but do so retrospectively and only every five to six months.”

Sarah Armstrong, professor of criminology at Glasgow University and the Scottish Centre for Criminal Justice Research (SCCJR), said terminology in prison deaths could be misleading.

In 2015, the death of Allan Marshall was recorded as “natural cause – sudden”. He went into cardiac arrest after being violently restrained by prison officers in Saughton Prison and dragged along the corridor feet first. Four days later he died in Edinburgh Royal Infirmary from multiple injuries. An FAI found his death was “entirely preventable”. Armstrong agreed that greater transparency was needed. “Organisations like Inquest and others have shown that it’s not uncommon in the case of a death, said to be from natural causes, that that death can have been preceded by extended periods of pain or struggle and that the term does not always show the circumstances in prison that may have exacerbated that death,” she added.

However, she claimed other action was also needed. “In prison there is increased [suicide] risk,” she added. “There are things that we can do to reduce it such as minimising isolation and supporting positive relationships between staff and prisoners so there is greater awareness when someone’s situation changes or they need help.

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“Ultimately, though, the solution is about reducing numbers going into prison and being really clear about the criteria of who actually needs to be there, and asking whether secure confinement is necessary. We absolutely need to look at reducing the prison population.”

NUMBERS remain stubb-ornly high. In the first week of the new year, 8159 people were in prison including 388 women. That’s despite a target to reduce that number to 250 by 2020, based on the capacity of the new women’s facility.

In the last week in December, the number of prisoners released on Home Detention Curfew (allowed home with an electronic tag) fell to an all time low, with just three women and 29 men released. Until November 18, when the criteria was reassessed, the number was more than 200.

Anne Pinkman, chair of the Scottish working group on women’s offending, said: “The number of women currently in prison is well short of that original target. That needs to be reduced and we should be keeping a close eye on that. If we look at the prison estate overall, it goes without saying that the high numbers have an impact on wellbeing and on access to work and education, therapeutic and rehabilitative opportunities.”

A spokeswoman for the Scottish Prison Service said: “The safety and well-being of those in custody is a key priority for the Scottish Prison Service and we care for people with higher levels of risk and vulnerability than the general population as a whole. We take all instances of self-harm and threats of suicide very seriously and constantly review our processes to ensure those at risk are identified and supported effectively.”

She claimed the SPS’s suicide prevention strategy was re-issued in December 19, with 99% of staff having completed “refresher” training. The use of “safer cells” used to keep suicidal prisoners under observation is being reviewed.

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Any suicide in custody is a tragedy that has a profound effect on family and friends, as well as prison staff. We are taking this issue seriously with two reviews that have been enacted.

“The safe treatment and mental health of all those in custody is a key priority for Scotland’s prisons, which care for people with higher levels of risk and vulnerability than the general population as a whole. Frontline prison and healthcare staff are crucial to managing suicide risk and we recognise the hard work they do every day to support people in custody in what can be distressing circumstances.”