Deaths in Custody

– in the Scottish Parliament on 6th October 2022.

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Photo of Jamie Greene Jamie Greene Conservative

6. To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government is doing to reduce deaths in custody, including suicides, in light of reports of a 60 per cent year-on-year increase. (S6F-01423)

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

First and foremost, my thoughts are with everyone who has lost a loved one in prison custody. The safety and wellbeing of people who are in prison are a priority, and we recognise that we need to do more to support positive health outcomes for vulnerable people in prisons.

The prison health and social care needs assessment, which we published last month, and work undertaken in response to the independent deaths in custody review are key steps in our commitment to achieving that aim. All front-line staff are trained in the Scottish Prison Service’s prevention of suicide strategy, which provides a person-centred care pathway for prisoners who are at risk of suicide and promotes a supportive environment in which people can ask for help. Individuals are screened on their arrival at prison. When needed, the SPS and the national health service work together to support vulnerable individuals and review them regularly.

Photo of Jamie Greene Jamie Greene Conservative

The First Minister is right to say that we need to do more. In my hand is a one-page roll call, which contains a tragic list of every single death in Scotland’s prisons last year. The list includes individuals’ names, ages and causes of death. I will not read out those names, out of respect for the families involved and to avoid the risk of retraumatising them, but those prisoners should not be forgotten. For example, at HMP Addiewell, a 26-year-old man took his own life nine months into his sentence; at HMP Kilmarnock, a 29-year-old man was found hanging four months into his sentence; and at HMP Greenock, a 27-year-old man was found hanging 15 months into his sentence. At HMP Polmont, a 20-year-old man—who had not even been convicted; he was on remand—was found dead.

Those are just the tragic suicides in prisons. Where do I start with the overdoses? Etizolam and opioid overdoses and multidrug intoxication are killing people in our prisons every week. They account for 53 of the deaths on the list in the past year alone. Ten years ago, there were 21 names on an equivalent list. That is still too many, but we can see that the number has doubled in 10 years.

Why is it still the case that so many people in custody are taking their lives? Despite years of promises to get a grip on the problem, why are so many drugs still getting into our prisons and killing people? I warn that this situation must stop or, next year, the list of deaths will be two pages long and the year after that it will be three pages long. I ask the First Minister when this will end.

The First Minister:

Every death from suicide is a tragedy, no matter where it takes place, which is why this issue is not specifically about prisons. However, it is why the new suicide prevention strategy from the Scottish Government and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, which was launched last week, is so important. Clearly there are particular issues in prisons, which is why the work that I set out in my original answer is so important. The prevention of suicide in prison strategy aims to care for those at risk of suicide by providing a specific pathway based on an individual’s specific needs. Of course, a supportive environment should also be promoted to ensure that people in custody are able to ask for help. We will continue to take forward all of that work.

Finally, this is not the only reason but one of the many reasons that this Government has made it a priority to try to reduce the number of people, particularly vulnerable people, who are in our prisons in the first place by, for example, reducing short-term sentences and increasing community rehabilitation options. Often, the Conservatives come here and oppose all of those things, so I say in the interests of consensus that we should take forward this important debate in the context of a proper debate on criminal justice as a whole. We send too many people to prison in Scotland in the first place, and we need to tackle that as well as ensure that we tackle the conditions inside our prisons.

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour

Research from the University of Glasgow has shown that in more than nine out of 10 fatal accident inquiries sheriffs made no recommendations to improve practice. It also shows that, when families are involved, sheriffs are three times more likely to make findings based on lessons learned from the deaths; however, only 31 per cent of families are represented at FAIs.

My colleague Katy Clark has raised the issue with the Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Veterans, but I ask the First Minister to consider whether all families and the next of kin of family members who have died in custody should have access to non-means-tested legal aid funding throughout the investigation. I am sure that the First Minister will appreciate that many families who have lost someone in custody feel helpless and intimidated by the process and it is important to ensure that they get representation where it is needed.

The First Minister:

Those are important and legitimate issues to raise. Of course, a fatal accident inquiry is an independent judicial process that is mandatory for all deaths in custody unless the circumstances of the death have been explained through a criminal trial or other inquiry. The current process for FAIs, as enacted in legislation in 2016, follows an in-depth review of the system, and a number of improvements have been made to the system for such inquiries since the legislation in question was introduced. However, Pauline McNeill has clearly raised an important issue about legal aid and the ability of families to engage with inquiries, and I will certainly take it away and consider whether there is any further action that it would be appropriate for the Scottish Government to take.

The Presiding Officer:

That concludes First Minister’s questions. There will be a short suspension before we move on to the next item of business, which is a members’ business debate in the name of Mark Ruskell.

12:48 Meeting suspended.

12:49 On resuming—