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Prison suicide rate among highest in Europe in 2022, research shows

The report analysed and compared European prison statistics (Danny Lawson/PA)
The report analysed and compared European prison statistics (Danny Lawson/PA)

The suicide rate in Scottish prisons was among the highest in Europe in 2022, research has found.

Scotland had a “very high” rate of 18.9 suicides per 10,000 inmates, the Council of Europe found, which was above the rate of 9.3 in England and Wales and the European median of 5.3.

Only Latvia (21.7), Switzerland (20.2) and France (19.1) reported higher rates of suicide than Scotland in 2022.

The annual penal statistics report was compiled by the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, comparing 48 prison administrations around Europe.

At the start of 2023, the total number of inmates in Scotland was 7,408, of which 28.9% were without a final sentence.

This compares to 17.3% of inmates without a final sentence in England and Wales and a European median figure of 24.7%.

Previous research from the Scottish Government found the prisoner death rate trebled between 2012 and 2022.

A separate University of Glasgow study noted an increase in prisoner deaths between January 2020 and September 2022, compared to the previous three years.

Researchers said while Covid infections had an impact on numbers, the increase in deaths by suicide and drugs had the most significant influence.

Marcelo Aebi, a professor of criminology at the University of Lausanne, said that while there are some discrepancies in the way European countries record deaths – including for inmates who die in hospital rather than prison – this would be unlikely to affect Scotland’s overall distribution in the data.

He told the PA news agency that due to the way the figures for suicide rates are compiled, the number for suicides per 10,000 inmates was greater than the number of those who died in Scottish prisons that year.

He nevertheless said there appeared to be a “problem” in Scotland, noting that the budget per prisoner also seemed “a little low”.

Prof Aebi said: “If you have a lot of people (in prison) and don’t have enough staff – these issues, suicide, can become more common.”

A Scottish Prison Service spokesman said: “The health and wellbeing of all those in our care is a key priority and everyone who enters custody is assessed, by both our staff and NHS partners, to identify exactly what support is needed.

“We also have peer mentors and listeners, trained by the Samaritans, to support people when they first arrive and throughout their time in custody.

“We have recently introduced dedicated phone lines in every prison, giving families a direct route to raise mental health concerns about their loved one, and in turn improve our ability to identify people at risk.”

The prison service highlighted that the report said comparisons between countries should be treated very cautiously.

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Every suicide is an enormous tragedy and leaves a devastating and long-lasting impact on the families involved. The mental health of all those in custody is a priority for the Scottish Government and the Scottish Prison Service.

“In 2023/24 we committed £2.5 million to suicide prevention, and we are well on track to achieving our commitment to increase this annual funding to £2.8 million by 2026.”

Scottish Liberal Democrat justice spokesman Liam McArthur said: “For too long, the SNP have presided over a self-harm epidemic behind the gates and walls of prisons. Tragic cases, like those of Katie Allan and William Brown, expose the devastating consequences of that epidemic.

“The Scottish Government have nobody to blame but themselves. Figures show similar overcrowding rates north and south of the border, but Scotland’s prison suicide rate is double the rate in England and Wales.

“The Government’s last strategy for suicide in prisons was criticised by Glasgow University researchers for actually worsening prisoner wellbeing, yet it’s not been replaced even after it formally expired in 2021.

“Rather than increasing resources, last year they cut the prison mental health budget. The Scottish Government must implement a new prison suicide strategy as a matter of urgency, ensure it contains proper checks and balances, and roll out mental health professionals across the prison estate.”