Cornton Vale Prison (Suicides)

Schedule 10 – in the House of Commons at 11:15 pm on 17th June 1996.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Brandreth.]

Photo of John McFall John McFall , Dumbarton 11:52 pm, 17th June 1996

I am privileged to have this debate on suicides at Cornton Vale prison. The latest case concerned a young constituent of mine, Angela Bollan, aged 19.

I well remember the evening of Friday 26 April. I was organising a dance in my constituency when I was telephoned by the media at 6 pm to be told that one of my young constituents had committed suicide. I know her parents, Jim and Ann Bollan, very well. I went to visit them that evening to offer my condolences. It was no surprise that, when I visited them, they were devastated, distraught and numb at what had happened. They kept asking why it had happened to their daughter.

Angela was a bubbly teenager. Her mother told me that she had telephoned her the previous day. She said that Angela was a vibrant 19-year-old girl with an outgoing personality who never dwelt on problems or held grudges. She saw the good side of everyone and could with ease bridge the generation gap with her elders. On the day she died, she wrote a letter to her parents in the usual upbeat terms. She was looking forward to release. Her parent said that her letter stated: she had just been to the gym, telling us she had her hair cut and styled and asking us to bring some clothes up later that week. Her parents cannot accept Angela's death, and feel that there is culpability on the part of the Scottish Prison Service for her death.

It is important to remember that Angela was on remand in Cornton Vale prison, and that the issue of remand prisoners in Scotland should be subjected to increasing focus by the Government. In Scotland, the number of such prisoners in recent years has increased. In any one year, 20 per cent. of the 5,500 Scottish prison population are on remand, and between 1990 and 1994 there was a staggering increase of 35 per cent. in the number of prisoners held on remand. In 1990, there were 771 people in that category, and by 1994 the figure had risen to 1,015.

I have spoken to Clive Fairweather, Her Majesty's Inspector of Prisons in Scotland, and I know that he is concerned about the number of prisoners on remand. Among such prisoners there is a prevalence of mental disorder and drug and alcohol dependency. I should like to quote a parliamentary answer by a Home Office Minister that was given to a colleague. It states: researchers from the Institute of Psychiatry recently undertook for the Prison Service a study aimed principally at measuring the prevalence of mental disorder amongst the remand population in England and Wales. They considered that 66 per cent. of the adult males, 53 per cent. of the young men and 77 per cent. of the women in a large and broadly representative sample could be diagnosed as suffering from some form of mental disorder, a term which includes in this context harmful or dependent substance misuse."—[Official Report, 18 April 1996; Vol. 275, c. 566.] I do not think that the situation is any different in Scotland.

My young constituent, Angela Bollan, was drug-dependent, but, with parental help and encouragement, she was making every attempt to overcome that. On the day of her funeral, the minister who conducted it, the Rev. Ian Millar, in an eloquent homily, said that there was little doubt that, of late, Rainbow house—that is the drug unit to which Angela went in Glasgow—was an immense influence in her life. He said: It was her solace and there she made so many very special friends. There she found love that asked no questions. Love that accepted and love that made no judgments. There she made the first of those faltering 12 steps to health. The minister went on to widen the issue of the problem that confronted Angela and many other young people. He commented that, in our community, in Dumbarton and the Vale of Leven area—it is no different in many other communities— many hundreds of good and decent children are thrown on to the scrapheap of unemployment. The future to them seems devoid of any worth and meaning. Is it any wonder that many seek alternatives which might lift the gloom even if only for a moment. He went on: I see a metamorphosis before my eyes. That catastrophic change which occurs when the bright and smiling youngsters of the primary school realise that their hopes and dreams of early years cannot be fulfilled. Despite the positive efforts of the school to promote their self-esteem, cynicism enters their soul and they give up on the system. He mentioned the anger and the affront that that caused. It causes anger because he and other people in the community, and her parents, thought that Angela might have been saved from the demons that haunted her, and saved from herself within the prison system.

I am not here to blame the Cornton Vale staff, because I have visited the prison and seen for myself the good efforts that have been made there. The system is to blame—it dehumanises.

In the previous year, another young constituent of mine—an 18-year-old called Gerry Deary—committed suicide in Greenock prison. I visited his parents and relatives in their home on the following Saturday. His uncle told me that, if the authorities had allowed Gerry's relatives to visit him and tell him to wisen up, not to be so silly, and to prepare himself to come home soon, they could have done something for him. But they were separated from him for a vital few days, and never had that opportunity.

The fatal accident inquiries into the other deaths in Cornton Vale—those into Arlene Elliot and Kelly Holland—have highlighted the deficiencies. I will not go into the details of the cases, but it is obvious that there were faults in communication both within and outside the prison, and in the expertise of prison officers. In one case, a psychiatrist—Dr. Hunter—went to see Arlene Elliot, but he was not allowed into the prison because his visit coincided with the tea break of the prison officers. That matter was referred to by Sheriff Principal John Maguire in his fatal accident inquiry report.

Dr. Kevin Power and Professor Gunn have been commissioned by the Scottish Prison Service to look at the deficiencies in identification, communication and care, and they have made a number of recommendations. I have had the opportunity to see the bare recommendations, but not the report. I want the Minister to focus on the recommendations, and give us an assurance that something is now happening.

That is why I support the plea from my constituents Jim and Ann Bollan for a public inquiry and full disclosure. Alarm bells are ringing: there have been four suicides in Cornton Vale over a 10-month period. There were 16 suicides in Scottish prisons in 1994, 10 in 1995, and this year to date there have been four. That contrasts with a yearly average of 6.5 over the previous 10 years. Something is going wrong.

Photo of Michael Connarty Michael Connarty , Falkirk East

My hon. Friend has raised the very statistics that he and I have discussed, which highlight what I call the explosion of suicides in Scottish prisons. Is not the lack of communication between the medical practitioners and the custodial officers at the root of many of the suicides of people who are infirm, psychologically disturbed and not supervised properly?

Photo of John McFall John McFall , Dumbarton

That is correct, and Professor Gunn in particular has addressed that matter. The service needs increasing expertise and resources. If the Government are to take people's liberty away from them, they have an obligation to ensure that they are cared for within prison. I can offer a way forward in a number of areas to the Minister.

First, I refer to the issue of drug offenders. Most of the young girls in Cornton Vale and other prisons are there for the most petty offences. During my visit, I met a young girl who had broken bail three times. I asked her what her original offence had been, and was told that she had stolen a £40 jumper from Marks and Spencer to feed her drug habit.

The question has to be asked—is prison the proper place to put young individuals with a drug dependency? Is there not a better community alternative? Could they be sent to an intensive treatment clinic as an alternative to gaol? Perhaps they could receive intensive treatment for, say, 12 weeks, followed up by work in the community. That is a way forward, and the Government should be looking at such proposals which could also help to reduce reoffending and ease prison overcrowding.

In addition, the Government must end the practice of sending young girls on remand. I am aware that Her Majesty's inspectorate of prisons has been to Cornton Vale and reported on 31 May. That report has not yet been made public, but I hope that the inspectorate will recommend a course of action such as that, because it is totally inappropriate for young girls to be in such an alien and oppressive situation where they may suffer bullying and then try to take their own lives.

Angela Bollan's case illustrates that situation. Although the previous day she was, in her parents' word, "upbeat", she committed suicide a short time later. We cannot prevent every suicide in prison, but we must have a proper regime. The deficiencies need to be tackled.

I wish the Minister to elaborate on the Gunn and the Power recommendations.

Cultural change is important. Any profession may become preoccupied with a feeling of being beleaguered, misused and misunderstood. I do not want that to happen to the prison service, because it will do the interests of the prison service and prisoners no good, but a fundamental precondition is for the Scottish Prison Service constantly to recall the injunction in its mission statement to treat prisoners with humanity. The Government should give high priority to achieving some of the improvements in the name of humanity and justice.

With regard to the families—it is important to remember that I initiated this debate as a response to family pressure—crime prevention should concern itself with improving moral and material support to the family unit, as a place where most people receive love, psychological security and care, and civilised values are transmitted from one generation to another.

We know that the average prison population for females increased by 25 per cent. between 1992 and 1995. About half those women have dependent children. Most are non-violent offenders, and many have committed minor offences. Can it possibly be the best way to proceed to keep them in prison? I ask the Minister to consider that question very seriously.

Research in the United States of America shows that a prisoner without family support is six times more likely to reoffend in the year after release than one who has maintained close family links. We therefore pay a heavy price if we discard mechanisms that tend to keep family relationships intact.

We all bear responsibility for sending people to prison and for what goes on there. Therefore, the climate should be one in which we rise above the attitudes and vocabulary of revenge, war or punishment for its own sake, and speak instead the language of justice. The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) eloquently did so today in the Scottish Grand Committee, and that principle should be adopted by the Government with regard to the Scottish Prison Service.

We should create a climate in which we pay more attention to moral and social relationships. Sadly, for Jim and Ann Bollan, that is lost now, but we must look to the future and make our prisons a more secure and humane environment.

I appeal to the Minister by quoting one of his heroes, Winston Churchill, who said in 1910 of the principles that should underlie penal policy: a constant heart-searching by all charged with the duty of punishment, a desire and eagerness to rehabilitate in the world of industry all those who have paid their dues in the hard coinage of punishment … and an unfaltering faith that there is a treasure, if you can only find it, in the heart of every man"— and in the heart of every woman.

Photo of Lord James Douglas-Hamilton Lord James Douglas-Hamilton , Edinburgh West 12:07 am, 17th June 1996

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall) for the opportunity to place on record the policy of the Scottish Prison Service regarding suicide prevention.

No one can be anything but extremely concerned about suicides in prison. The loss of lives, especially young lives, in any circumstances is a matter of the greatest regret to us all, and I wish to take this opportunity to offer my condolences to the families of those who have taken their lives while in custody at Cornton Vale, at Greenock, and at those other prisons where there have been such deaths in recent months.

The hon. Gentleman referred to his constituent, Angela Bollan, who died in custody in Cornton Vale on 26 April 1996. I offer my deepest sympathy to Miss Bollan's family. A fatal accident inquiry will be held into the circumstances surrounding her death, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that any recommendations made by the sheriff will be considered very seriously by the Scottish Prison Service and by Ministers.

There will always be a fatal accident inquiry after any death in custody, unless there is a murder case. I am aware that, only today, a fatal accident inquiry has begun into the death of another young woman at Cornton Vale prison.

There are no easy answers to suicides in prisons—however, that is not to say that there is little that can be done about suicides. The staff of the Scottish Prison Service do a difficult job on behalf of society and they deserve the support of all law-abiding citizens. They take seriously their duty of care to those committed to custody, they identify those at risk of self-harm, and they do whatever they can to minimise that risk. There is much that can be done, and there is much that is being done.

There is no quick-fix solution to suicide, whether in prison or in the community. As the hon. Member will be aware, suicides in the community have also been rising. An increase in prison suicides is all the more likely when significant numbers of those committed to prison have a history of drug misuse, the withdrawal from which brings with it a range of problems with which prison medical staff and ordinary prison officers have to deal.

The Scottish Prison Service's suicide prevention strategy has three main strands: screening to encourage the identification of prisoners at risk, the provision of appropriate care, and good communications by all those involved. It recognises the problems prisoners bring with them into prison or develop while in prison, and it aims to engage medical staff, prison nurses and all other people working in prisons to identify prisoners at risk and to provide appropriate care.

Guidance is available to all prisons on how to deal with prisoners at risk, which takes account of good practice in other institutional settings and which also recognises the reality of the prison situation. However, it is important to remember that prisons are places of secure custody for those who have broken the law and who are deemed by the courts to be in need of such custody for the protection of the public, either because of the nature of their offences or because of the frequency of their offending. Being in prison is certainly no joy ride.

The public have a right to protection from those who, through their anti-social behaviour, consistently infringe the liberty of law-abiding people. There are very few offenders who find themselves in prison as a result of only one brush with the law or one court appearance. For the majority—this applies to women as well as to men—a whole variety of alternatives to custody will have been experienced before a custodial sentence is imposed.

The hon. Gentleman hinted—if I understood him correctly—that there is a place for bail hostels. The Government recognise that supervised and supported accommodation can make a contribution. I appreciate that, for some young people, being remanded in a prison or young offenders institution will be a troubling and difficult experience. However, the court has to achieve a proper balance between the risk that the alleged offender may pose to the community and the risk to the young person. Sometimes, remand in custody is the only option.

Breaches of bail are a serious problem. The public find it difficult to understand why an habitual offender can appear in court one day, only to be released on bail to commit further offences, to cause further distress to victims and to use up police resources. I accept that supervision in the community also has an important role to play in tackling reoffending while on bail.

Three years ago, we widened the scope of those services receiving 100 per cent. central Government funding to incorporate two pilot bail supervision projects in Lothian and Strathclyde. The projects will be evaluated to assess the impact of bail supervision on the behaviour of those who are subject to it.

It is our policy to promote the development, within 100 per cent. funding of criminal justice social work services, of a sufficient network of supervised criminal justice accommodation to enable courts or the Parole Board to impose conditions of residence where they think it necessary in the public interest. Offenders could be on bail, on probation or on supervision after release from custody. Development of the network will be phased over a number of years. An offer in principle has been made to the relevant local authority—Dundee council—for the establishment of a new bail hostel in Tayside.

Whatever the alternatives to prison, however, there will continue to be a need for certain people to be remanded in or committed to prison in the interest of protecting the public, and we need to be realistic about what prisons are. As a sheriff recently observed, prisons are not hospitals; nor are they schools. Identification of those who are at risk is not easy for the professional psychiatrist, far less the ordinary gallery officer. Without that identification, the provision of appropriate care—even within the limitations of the prison environment—is doubly difficult.

Having said that, I do not wish to underestimate the commitment of the Scottish Prison Service to developing and managing a strategy for the care of prisoners at risk that is effective and humane. I am, of course, aware of the criticisms that have been made of the workings of that strategy, but I wish to put on record that the findings of fatal accident inquiries into the deaths of two young women at Cornton Vale, and other recent deaths, have attributed no blame to the staff or management of the Scottish Prison Service.

Like any policy for dealing with human behaviour, the suicide prevention strategy of the Scottish Prison Service will adapt to changing circumstances. The recommendations of Professor Gunn and Dr. Kevin Power are being carefully considered, and a number of their recommendations can readily be taken on board. Others will require more careful thought.

A recurring theme from those who have studied the difficult issue of suicides in prison—from Dr. Chiswick, who investigated suicides at Glenochil in the 1980s, to Professor Gunn and Dr. Power—is the criticism, including criticism by some staff of the Scottish Prison Service, of the use of isolation and seclusion as a response to the apparently suicidal. By "isolation and seclusion", I mean the practice—which is found in virtually all prison systems—of isolating the apparently suicidal in a cell in which the means of self-harm are not available.

I readily accept that that practice, if applied day and night, is unlikely to address the underlying mental and psychological disturbances that may precipitate the suicidal tendency in the prisoner; but it is nevertheless a fact that those who are so isolated do not in general succeed in taking their own lives. In general, it is not prisoners who are under suicide supervision who do so.

Professor Gunn and others have recommended over the years that isolation and seclusion in so-called stripped cells should not be used, at least during the day. They recommend a more therapeutic approach, with, in appropriate cases, 24-hour surveillance of those who present as potentially suicidal. Professor Gunn has suggested that every Scottish Prison Service custodial establishment—that is, some 19 separate institutions—should have an observational ward for the potentially suicidal, staffed for 24 hours a day.

I do not dispute the value of 24-hour surveillance, but careful consideration must be given not only to the resource implications but to the practicality, in a prison setting where the prospect of a period in a hospital environment runs the risk of being an irresistible temptation to those who pose no suicide risk but who, by presenting as suicidal, would seek to manipulate the authorities into removing them from normal circulation for their own ends.

That is one of the dilemmas facing prison staff—the identification of the genuinely suicidal, and distinguishing them from those who would and do use the threat of suicide to achieve an advantage of some kind. I do, however, agree that proper emphasis should be placed on care for the genuinely suicidal, and I know that the Scottish Prison Service will be considering the recommendations that have been made in that regard very carefully.

The Prisons Board will be considering Professor Gunn's recommendations later this week. Both Professor Gunn and Dr. Power have emphasised the need for more staff training. I assure hon. Members that particular attention will be paid to what further steps can be taken to improve staff's understanding of the suicide prevention strategy, and to professional training.

A number of steps have been taken to improve the professionalism of staff. Forty per cent. of nurses working in the Prison Service now have registered mental qualifications, compared with fewer than 10 per cent. three years ago. In recent weeks, the service has embarked on a major campaign to increase the volume and quality of psychological services through a major recruitment campaign, and a rolling programme of training with at-risk prisoners is under way for prison nursing staff.

At Cornton Vale, specific measures have been taken. Staffing levels within the remand unit have been raised to improve supervision and interaction. Prisoners within the unit are out of cell to the maximum extent possible during the daytime, and work is in hand to improve the activities available to them. It should be remembered, of course, that remand prisoners are not required, under the present rules, to work. The provision of purposeful activity for such prisoners is a major challenge for prison management.

I do not believe that the recent cluster of suicides at Cornton Vale is attributable to shortcomings on the part of prison staff or to fundamental failures in the Scottish Prison Service's suicide prevention strategy. Neither Professor Gunn nor Dr. Power concluded that the strategy is not working. I must make it clear to the hon. Gentleman that any recommendations made by fatal accident inquiries will be taken extremely seriously, as will any of their observations.

I stress that everyone has a part to play in the prevention of suicide, including prisoners. The listener scheme at Edinburgh prison, in which designated volunteer prisoners provide confidential support to those who come to them for help, has been widely praised, and has been commended by Professor Gunn. It is being extended to other prisons, with the assistance of the Samaritans. Families and friends also have a role, and I urge any who have reason to be concerned about the possibility of self-harm by a prisoner to contact the governor of the prison concerned.

The staff of the Scottish Prison Service have the most important part to play—by staff, I mean all staff. Suicide prevention is not the preserve of doctors, nurses or other professionals. All staff must be alert to risk, and discipline staff in the galleries are perhaps better placed than most to pick up the signals.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for highlighting this distressing matter. Where further training is required, it will be provided. Where communications need to be improved, they will be. There is no lack of commitment to the task by the management and staff of the Prison Service, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will join me in wishing them well in the difficult job they do.

The hon. Gentleman made an important point: that less serious offences do not necessarily merit imprisonment. I agree. He has said before that fine defaulters should not necessarily be imprisoned, and that there should be better ways of dealing with them. We should explore those matters, but the public need to be protected from dangerous criminals—we are not in dispute over that. These matters need to be studied carefully in the light of the findings and recommendations of the fatal accident inquiries.

As the hon. Gentleman knows—

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-two minutes past Twelve midnight.