THE deaths of 60 prisoners in Scottish jails over the past five years, almost half of the total number who died in custody, have not yet been properly investigated or explained.

Last week 39-year-old Malcolm Edward Smith, on remand at Barlinnie prison in Glasgow, became the fifth prisoner to die this year. He had been held awaiting trial for less than two weeks.

Under the Fatal Accidents and Sudden Deaths (Scotland) Act all prisoner deaths must be the subject of a Fatal Accident Inquiry to establish the circumstances of the fatalities. It is the responsibility of the Crown Office and the Procurator Fiscal Service to ensure that this happens.

There have been 121 deaths since 2012 but in 60 of those (and excluding this year’s toll) FAIs have still not been held. The deaths of three young men, the oldest 28, are still outstanding from 2013.

Seven of the total number of fatalities were women, but only the FAI of 19-year-old Sarah Mitchell, who killed herself in Cornton Vale prison on May 12, 2012, has been concluded.

The youngest of the 114 men who died was 17-year-old Raygen Malcolm Merchant, who is reported to have killed himself on October 17, 2014 in Polmont Young Offenders’ Institute. According to newspaper reports at the time, an officer is believed to have been transferred to another prison. But the inquiry into his death is still outstanding.

In January 2013, just a week after he was remanded to Perth prison, John Perry died. He was 24. More than four years later there has still been no FAI verdict to establish the cause and circumstances of his death.

The other two to die in 2013 – and whose deaths, officially, still remain a mystery – are 28-year-old Jason Jackson, in Perth prison less than a week after being convicted of domestic assault, and James Barr, who died on remand at Addiewell prison five weeks after admission.

In the cases where an FAI has been carried out – 98 examined deaths since 2010 – 32 of them, or almost a third, committed suicide. The youngest males to take their own lives were Andrew Stone and Jordan Barron, who killed themselves in Polmont, as did Ryan McNeil in HMP Inverness. All were 19.

The oldest suicide was Gordon Melrose, 66, who killed himself at HMP Edinburgh. The average age of a suicide was 29.

The figures do not include the number of those who died in police custody. There have been 14 of those since 2013 when the newly-formed Police Investigations and Review Commissioner was tasked with the job of looking into them.

The Howard League for Penal Reform in Scotland is an independent organisation which seeks to improve the criminal justice system. Spokesperson Lisa Mackenzie was shocked by the prison death figures. She said: "Imprisonment is the harshest sanction the state can impose upon one of its citizens. Ensuring prisoner safety is therefore a fundamental responsibility of the state. Every death in custody is a tragedy for the individual and their family.”

She added: “It is completely unacceptable that so many families have to wait so long for clarity about the circumstances in which their loved ones died in custody. And without sight of any conclusions reached via the FAI process, it is difficult for the prison service to learn any lessons that might lead to the prevention of future deaths in custody."

Tom Marshall, a former President of the Society of Solicitor Advocates, is a partner in the Glasgow firm Thompsons. He represented – at the FAI in 2014 – the families of the 16 passengers and crew of the Super Puma helicopter who died when it crashed in the sea off Peterhead in 2009. He points out that this took five years to happen.

“The process of holding an FAI seems to grind to a total standstill,” he said, comparing it to wading through treacle. “There is a consultation going on at the moment to fix rules which are intended to speed up the inquiry process.”

But no proposals, he points out, to impose a fixed timescale on it. “The ball is still in the court of the Crown Office,” he said.

In England the Prisons and Probations Ombudsman investigates all deaths in prison. It is informed immediately of all deaths and its staff have a deadline of 26 weeks to compile a draft report on the circumstances of each which goes both to the relevant coroner ahead of an inquest and to the next of kin.

A Crown Office spokesman said that some investigations into prisoner deaths might involve complex technical and medical issues requiring the instruction of experts, adding that a number of the deaths from 2013/14 have now been concluded while others are near completion or awaiting dates for FAIs.

Adding that since the formation in 2012 of the Scottish Fatalities Investigation Unit, which investigates all sudden and unexplained deaths, the waiting time for all FAIs in Scotland had been reduced by 64 per cent.