A charity which works to support families affected by imprisonment has raised concerns over the recent spike in deaths in Scotland's prisons. 

Nine inmates have died in the past nine weeks while behind bars in Scotland, according to information published by the Scottish Prison Service. 

By comparison, three prisoners died in the previous fourth-month period dating back to the end of December 2022. 

Of the deaths, three involved prisoners at HMP Barlinnie, two involved prisoners at both HMP Shotts and HMP Perth, one involved a prisoner at HMP Edinburgh and one involved a prisoner at HMP Low Moss.

Two of the prisoners died while on remand, while one prisoner died at HMP Edinburgh less than eight weeks after being convicted at Edinburgh Sheriff Court.

READ MORE: Scotland has second highest prison rate in western Europe, study shows

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. The Scottish Prison Service’s role in the inquiry is as a participant only, but it assists the Procurator Fiscal Service throughout the investigative stage.

Families Outside, a charity which works throughout Scotland to support families affected by imprisonment, said it is working with “increasing numbers of people” who experience a bereavement in prison. 

According to the charity’s CEO, Professor Nancy Loucks, "more must be done" to prevent these deaths and to support the families, staff, and those in prison who are “left behind”.

Prof Loucks, who is also co-chair of the Independent Review of the Response to Deaths in Prison Custody, told The Herald: “Every death in prison custody is a tragedy, and our thoughts are with the families affected. Imprisonment in itself is difficult enough for families, but losing a loved one in custody is an especially challenging time.”

The Herald: Three prisoners have died at HMP Barlinnie in the past nine weeksThree prisoners have died at HMP Barlinnie in the past nine weeks

Labour’s Justice spokesperson, Pauline McNeill MSP, said the statistics are “deeply troubling” and confirmed that she will raise the recent spike in deaths with the Justice Secretary.

She told The Herald: “I have raised the issue of deaths in custody on many occasions within the Scottish Parliament and will be writing to the Justice Secretary about this recent spike in deaths. 

“This is why the government need to act swiftly on the prison inspectorates report on deaths in custody, the families involved deserve answers. 

“We must have confidence in our prison system and figures like these raise questions which must be answered.”

A Scottish Prison Service spokesperson said: “SPS staff are dealing with some of the most vulnerable people in our society. 

READ MORE: Humza Yousaf promises new Barlinnie prison but can't give date or cost

“Every death, whether in prison custody or in our community is tragic for families, friends, and for those who have provided support to the person on a daily basis. 

“SPS are proactively working with stakeholders to develop a compassionate, yet robust, process that meets the needs of all concerned in the event of a death in custody.”

The recent spike in deaths among Scottish prisoners comes after research revealed that Scotland has the second highest prison population rate in Western Europe. 

The study by the Council of Europe, based in Strasbourg, found the country has the largest number of men and women in prison per 100,0000 of population across the UK, with only Malta having a higher figure among nations in the western part of the continent.

The Herald: There were 121 deaths in Scottish prisons between January 2020 and September 2022There were 121 deaths in Scottish prisons between January 2020 and September 2022

Scotland's incarceration rate stood at 136 inmates per 100,000 population, above that for England and Wales at 132 inmates per 100,000 of population, and well above the Europe-wide average of 104. Northern Ireland had a rate of 84.

In November last year, a study by academics at the University of Glasgow revealed that there were 121 deaths in Scottish prisons between January 2020 and September 2022 - compared to 98 in the previous three full years.

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

29 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 were still awaiting classification.

The analysis also found that a person who was imprisoned in 2022 in Scotland would be twice as likely to die in jail as someone in 2008.

Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Home Affairs, Angela Constance MSP, said: “My thoughts are with every family tragically bereaved by a death in prison.

“Progress is being made with the key recommendation from the Independent Review of the Response to Deaths in Prison Custody, that a new independent investigation should be carried out into every death in prison custody. This should help families receive information and answers to questions they may have about the circumstances of a death sooner.

“The safe treatment of all those in custody is a key priority for this Government and the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) who care for people with higher levels of risk and vulnerability than the general population as a whole.”