A RECORD number of people died in Scottish prisons in the last three years while suicides have soared by 42% despite a prevention strategy.

A new study by academics at the University of Glasgow has revealed that from September 2020 to 2022 there were 121 deaths in Scottish prisons - the highest level of any similar period on record.

The researchers say that while Covid infections had an impact on numbers, with 15 dying from the virus, it was the increase in deaths from suicide and drugs that has been the most significant impact.

Some 29 of the deaths were suicide, 25 were related to drugs and 42 were attributed to ‘other’ causes such as medical conditions.

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

Since the introduction of the current Scottish Prison Services suicide prevention strategy, Talk to Me (TTM), in December 2016, there have been 64 suicides in prison, the analysis found.

In the six-year period before the policy was in place there were 45 suicides.

HeraldScotland: MSPs at Holyrood's Justice Committee heard evidence on mental health provision at Scottish prisons

The number of suicides has more than doubled from five in the Covid year of 2020 to 12 in 2022.

The researchers said there were as many suicides in prison in nine months of 2022 than in all of the previous year.

The report authors, who include Linda and Stuart Allan, parents of Katie who died in prison custody in 2018, raise questions also raise questions around the efficacy of the Scottish Prison Service’s preventative suicide strategy called ‘Talk to Me’.

Co-author of the report, Professor Sarah Armstrong, University of Glasgow, said continued Covid restrictions has led to prisoners becoming isolated and distressed.

“There are very few mandatory Covid restrictions affecting people outside prison, but these continue inside Scottish prisons, including reduced face-to-face visiting, less opportunities to spend time outside of cells, and fewer members of staffing. After many years of research, it is widely accepted that this kind of prolonged isolation causes significant mental distress.

“While the numbers of people dying in prisons remains deeply disturbing, the fact it has accelerated under these conditions and led to more deaths from causes associated with distress, despair and isolation such as suicide and drug-related deaths, is not surprising.

“We would therefore urge the Scottish Prison Service to take urgent action to lift those restrictions and make improving mental health a priority for those in prison.”

From reading hundreds of fatal accident inquiry determinations, the research team found that those prison and health care staff who testified during these inquiries were reluctant to implement a prison Talk to Me strategy because “of its worsening impact on prisoner wellbeing” which was never questioned by sheriffs.

 Scottish Conservative shadow cabinet secretary for justice, said: “It’s deeply concerning to see deaths in Scottish prisons reach a record high, and that they are significantly worse than in England.

“It’s clear that not enough is being down to tackle suicides and drug deaths and that FAIs are not providing recommendations that lead to improvement.

“I raised this directly with Nicola Sturgeon two months ago and despite warm words of assurance things are going from bad to worse in Scotland’s crumbling prisons estate. 

“The Scottish Government has known about these concerns for years, yet someone going to prison now is twice as likely to die in custody as they were in 2008. There must be urgent action now to tackle these avoidable tragedies.”

A spokesman for the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service 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."

A Scottish Prison Service spokesman said: “We recognise the profound emotional distress experienced by families when a loved one dies in custody.

“Our vision is for people within our care to have the best possible health and wellbeing and, where mental health problems do occur, that they get the respect, support, treatment, and care they require.

“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.

“And 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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