A record number of people have died in prisons in Scotland in the last three years, according to new research.
There were 121 deaths in jails between January 2020 and September this year, compared to 98 in the previous three full years.
Twenty-nine of the deaths were suicide, 25 involved drugs, 15 were Covid-related, 42 were attributed to “other” causes such as medical conditions, and two were homicides. Eight deaths are still awaiting classification.
The numbers – significantly higher than those in prisons in England – emerged in a study by the University of Glasgow.
After examining data going back to 1995, researchers said a person imprisoned in 2022 in Scotland would be twice as likely to die in jail as someone in 2008.
They said while Covid infections had an impact on numbers, the increase in deaths by suicide and drugs had the most significant influence.
Sarah Armstrong, of the University of Glasgow and co-author of the report, said continued Covid restrictions in prisons have led to inmates becoming isolated and distressed, which she said causes “significant mental distress”.
These include reduced face-to-face visiting, less opportunities to spend time outside of cells, and fewer members of staff.
She described as shocking the fact the number of deaths in the last three years was the highest on record.
Professor Armstrong added: “What’s more disturbing is that the numbers seem to be on the rise and that there seems to be no kind of interruption despite Government promises to address this and it being established as a priority for targeting.”
She said the 15 Covid deaths was fairly low in comparison to other causes.
“Suicide and drug deaths seem to be leading, or motivating and fuelling this rise,” she said.
She said researchers are urging the Scottish Prison Service to take immediate action to lift the current restrictions and to make improving mental health a priority for inmates.
Speaking on BBC Radio Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland programme, she said that in comparison to the rest of the UK, Scotland has a higher suicide rate, a higher drug death rate and a marginally higher Covid death rate in prisons.
She added: “It’s very interesting that Scotland seems to be wanting to move in a more progressive direction with its punishment system and yet has more death in its prisons.”
The figures come one year after a critical report by the same authors which examined around 200 fatal accident inquiries (FAI) into deaths in prison across a 15-year period.
They found that in 90% of cases, sheriffs determined nothing could be done to prevent or foresee the prisoner’s death.
One year on and the problems identified with FAIs remain unchanged, the new report – called Still Nothing To See Here? – said.
As of October 2022, researchers found there were 123 FAIs outstanding, sheriffs have identified even fewer precautions, system defects or recommendations, and family involvement remains low.
Prof Armstrong said: “Time after time we’re finding that the FAIs are saying that there’s nothing to be done, that people did their best and the person died anyway… but, it does make you wonder, if everyone’s doing their best every time, then at some level there might be something wrong with the system.”
The report authors include Linda and Stuart Allan, whose 21-year-old student daughter Katie took her own life in Polmont prison in 2018 after she was jailed for a hit-and-run incident.
Ms Allan said: “As with last year’s review, time and time again the Crown Office are not presenting systemic failures.
“From the narrow focus of individual cases where prisoners say they have no thoughts of self-harm and appear otherwise well to non-mental health professionals was sufficient for sheriffs to conclude a person was at no risk of suicide, often despite many other markers of risk including previous attempts of suicide and recent life-changing events.”
The report also looked at the prison service’s suicide prevention strategy called Talk To Me which was introduced six years ago.
The academics found there had been a 42% increase in suicides since the strategy was introduced compared with the six previous years.
In response to the findings, a spokesperson for the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) said: “COPFS takes very seriously its contribution to Scotland’s response to deaths in custody.
“We have created a specialist investigations team to focus on these cases and are part of a multi-agency action group which is driving improvement.
“We feel this research paper does not fully capture the practical application of FAI legislation and would be pleased to meet with its authors.”
Speaking in Holyrood in response to an urgent question, Justice Secretary Keith Brown was urged to support Scottish Tory calls to make prisons drug free by 2025.
Responding to the party’s justice spokesman Jamie Greene, Mr Brown said: “Rather than backing calls, I think I would want to take the responsible step of looking at the provisions and the measures that are suggested within that call before taking a judgement on that – so I’m happy to have that discussion.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The Crown Office has significantly reformed its processes to reduce the time taken to investigate deaths and to bring FAIs to court more quickly.
“It is for the presiding sheriff, who has heard all the evidence, to determine what recommendations, if any, should be made.”
A Scottish Prison Service spokesperson said: “We work closely with NHS partners to develop individualised plans, and provide contact with Samaritans, where trained Listeners provide additional support.
“Talk To Me, developed in partnership with experts in suicide prevention, provides person-centred care for those most at risk.
“We are working with partner agencies to deliver overdose awareness activities, recovery cafes, and wider support services.
“During the Covid pandemic we implemented a ‘Prison 2 Rehab’ pathway, giving people access to rehabilitation programmes directly from the point of liberation.
“The introduction of photocopying of mail has led to a significant fall in both incidents of drug-taking, and emergency ambulance calls related to substance misuse.
“We also have increasing numbers of older people in our care, with the same health and care challenges as seen in the wider community, and high levels of health inequalities faced by our population as a whole.”
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