Report after Polmont tragedies ‘a missed opportunity’ say families

editorial image

The lawyer for the families of two Polmont YOI prisoners who took their own lives has slammed a prisons service report as “delusional and desperate”.

Solicitor Aamer Anwar says the families of Katie Allan and William Lindsay are angry that Her Majesty’s Inspector did not ask why the prison service “failed to implement so many of the recommendations made in previous inspections”.

He added: “‘Pre-planned announced’ inspections allow prisons at best to paint an artificial picture, and at worst to conceal evidence of endemic institutional failures.

“It is time that all prisons in Scotland were subjected to unannounced inspections into key areas where there are repeated failures”.

However he is less critical of the mental health review carried out in the wake of the tragedies.

He said: “The Mental Health Review exposes the failure to deal with the culture of bullying, drugs, lack of resources, low staff morale, recruitment and retention issues, as well as communication failures on critical information being shared between the NHS and Scottish Prisons Service that could save lives”.

He added: “The Scottish Government set out a suicide prevention strategy in 2013 to 2016, yet in 2019 the review finds suicides at their highest rate, whilst 67 per cent of suicides happen within the first three months of being detained.

“The risk of suicide is at the highest in the 30 days following release, yet we can find no statistics for Scotland- which begs the question why not?”

Linda Allan, mother of Katie Allan, said: “We appreciate that there has been a great deal of work that has gone into the Mental Health Review, which involved a number of supporting organisations and in a short period of time.

“However we are deeply disappointed by HMIPS inspection report, which we see as a missed opportunity and a desperate attempt to cover up the SPS failures which led to our daughter Katie taking her life.”

Deborah Coles, Director of the charity INQUEST, said: “This report is further evidence that imprisoning young people only causes more harm.

“How can a supposedly progressive society continue to send people, including children and vulnerable young people, to environments which are unsafe and damaging?”

The Scottish Liberal Democrats argue the findings amount to “a mental health emergency”.

Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research director Sarah Armstrong, who headed the review, said: “The evidence of research and prior reviews makes clear that everyone in prison is vulnerable and that institutions can further exacerbate this through practices such as being locked in cells for extended periods of time, repeated strip searches and experiencing indifferent treatment by staff.

“One of the most important factors is isolation which has a profoundly damaging effect on a person’s ability to cope in prison and is particularly intense for young people.

“International and European human rights frameworks make clear that isolation of young people should not be used at all and that young people should be diverted from custody wherever possible”.

She added: “Keeping someone alive through suicide prevention measures is not the same as keeping someone well.

“Time out of cells should be maximised with support for both staff and prisoners to develop relationships of trust in prison”.

She also noted that official versions of the number of suicides were at odds with each other, with a report citing 22 tragedies but internal analysis suggesting there had been 31.

The Scottish Prison Service says safety and wellbeing of everyone in its care continues to be a priority, and that work is already underway to strengthen the support available.

Justice secretary Humza Yousaf, who asked for the review, said: “We take the mental wellbeing of people in prison very seriously and while the numbers of suicides by young people in custody are small, no death should be regarded as inevitable.

“Any suicide in custody is a tragedy that has a profound effect on family and friends, as well as prison staff, and my thoughts are with all those who have lost loved ones to suicide.”