Skip to main content

Language: English / Gàidhlig

Seòmar agus comataidhean

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Wednesday, November 30, 2022


Urgent Question

Deaths in Custody

To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to reduce deaths in custody, in light of new statistics showing that a record number of people have died in prisons in the past three years.

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Veterans (Keith Brown)

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 must do more to support positive health outcomes for vulnerable people in prisons. The prison health and social care needs assessment, which we published in September, and the work that is being undertaken in response to the independent review of deaths in prison custody 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, and when needed, the SPS and the national health service work together to support vulnerable individuals, whom they review regularly. We are also working with partners and bereaved families to implement the recommendations from the deaths in prison custody review.

Jamie Greene

We, too, pass on our condolences to all families who have been affected by a death in custody. They are in our thoughts.

There have been 121 deaths in custody since 2020, and those figures are significantly worse in Scotland than they are in other parts of the United Kingdom. In Scotland, 15 per cent of prison inmates have long-term mental health problems; 30 per cent have alcohol use disorder; and 17 per cent have a history of self-harm. Despite all those challenges, there continues to be huge variation in the provision of mental health nurses in the prison estate. In HMP Barlinnie, for example, there is only one nurse per 282 inmates.

I raised that disturbing trend explicitly with the First Minister in October. With deaths in custody at a tragic new high, what further progress has been made on the First Minister’s pledge to improve conditions and reduce these needless and avoidable deaths?

Keith Brown

I acknowledge Jamie Greene’s point about the difference between Scotland and the rest of the UK, which is a relevant factor to look at, but I think that the situation here is more complex than is sometimes suggested. Of course, whether through deaths from Covid or the impact of Covid itself on the mental health of prisoners, particular issues have made this period more difficult. However, that is also true in England and Wales.

I acknowledge that there is a difference here that we must interrogate, so we must take the time to look at all the elements of the report. If members look at how the Ministry of Justice reports deaths in custody, they will see that it takes a significantly different approach; for example, it collates suicides and deaths, including drug overdoses, in the category of self-inflicted deaths. In 2020-21, 86 deaths in England and Wales were self-inflicted, which is an increase of 28 per cent from the previous year. However, the latest figures from the Council of Europe, which go back to 2018, show that the mortality rate in prisons in Scotland is 46 per 10,000 inmates, whereas in England and Wales it is 39.5. There is a difference in that respect that we want to get to the bottom of.

We are engaging with the NHS, the SPS and prison care networks to embed the medication-assisted treatment standards in prison settings, and additional support is being provided for the provision of health services. However, that is an on-going issue. As we heard during the previous set of portfolio questions, there has also been an impact as a result of staff difficulties, and identifying new staff for the health service has an impact on prisons, too.

I am happy to keep Jamie Greene updated as we move forward.

Jamie Greene

Clearly, this is not some race to the bottom with regard to the statistics. The numbers are rising, and that is tragic. As we all know, behind every statistic is a life lost.

It is not just suicides that are on the rise in prisons, but drug deaths. Thanks to pressure from prison officers and members on the Conservative benches, mail—which can be soaked in drugs—is now photocopied before being presented to prisoners. However, the statistics clearly show that dangerous illicit drugs are somehow still making their way into our prisons.

The cabinet secretary recently told the Criminal Justice Committee that

“We should not accept the presence of drugs in prison as inevitable.”—[Official Report, Criminal Justice Committee, 1 September 2021; c 36.]

I agree entirely with that sentiment. Will the cabinet secretary back my call today to make all Scottish prisons drug free by 2025? We think that that is doable. If he does back my call, how will that be done, and if he does not, why not?

Keith Brown

Rather than backing the member’s call now, I would want to take the responsible step of looking at what the provisions and measures within that would be before making a judgment. I am happy to have that discussion.

I should also say that we have initiated the photocopying of previously drug-infused items, which has had a very beneficial impact, not just on individual prisoners’ health but in starting to break, to some extent, the hold of serious organised crime. Moreover, new equipment—which has been installed at Barlinnie, for example—can do a whole-body scan to ensure that no drugs come in that way. To be perfectly frank, we have been finding a consequential increase in over-the-wall attempts to get drugs into prison, but that is no different from every other jurisdiction.

This is a continuing campaign. I think that we have made significant progress in reducing the ways in which drugs get into prisons. I agree that there is more to do, and I am happy to look at any concrete proposals that the member might want to put forward.

Pauline McNeill (Glasgow) (Lab)

The report, which comes from the University of Glasgow, says:

“a person imprisoned in 2022 will be twice as likely to die in prison as someone imprisoned in 2008”,

which is quite a jolting statistic. As Jamie Greene has said—and as the cabinet secretary has acknowledged—the figure of 29 deaths by suicide is significantly higher than that in England.

What will the Scottish Government do to identify why that is the case? Will it examine whether prison restrictions—less time out of cells, for example—are leading to a loss of hope, particularly in relation to the deaths by suicide? Will the cabinet secretary assure me that he is continuing to talk to the trade unions, which provide an invaluable insight into the general availability of drugs in and around our prisons, so that we can get this right?

Keith Brown

I am happy to confirm that we are continuing to talk to the trade unions, although those talks have perhaps been dominated of late by the pay negotiations that are going on. In my visits to a number of prisons, I have found, just as Pauline McNeill says, that the people who best understand the problem and can perhaps find solutions are those who work on the front line.

The member is also right to say that the restrictions that were necessary during the course of the Covid pandemic will have had an effect on the mental health of prisoners. We understand that, which is why we agreed to the recommendation from His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons for Scotland to get rid of those restrictions, as far as possible, at the same time that they were being lifted from the general population.

The recent moves with regard to mobile phones have ensured that prisoners can be in contact with their families, particularly their children. I think that the approach has had a beneficial impact; however, there is no question but that we will have to continue to examine that and work with trade union partners to get the best possible understanding so that we can find the right way forward.

What steps in addition to the action that has already been outlined by the cabinet secretary are being taken to improve prisoner welfare and wellbeing and tackle the tragic issue of prison suicides?

Keith Brown

The Prison Service is developing its health and wellbeing strategy, which focuses on the prevention of suicide and self-harm. The prevention of suicide in prison strategy also aims to care for those who are at risk of suicide by providing a person-centred care pathway based on an individual’s needs, strengths and assets and by promoting a supportive environment where people in SPS custody can ask for help. Indeed, I have witnessed that approach at close range, especially with those who have just been admitted to prison for the first time—which can have a traumatic impact—and I have also seen the way in which front-line SPS staff have been trained to deal with that, not least in relation to the prevention of suicide.

As I have said, individuals are screened on their arrival at prison, and the SPS and the national health service will, when needed, work together to support vulnerable individuals, reviewing them regularly. I will continue to make sure that we refine that.

Instead of giving a snap judgment on the report, I want to take a bit more time to look at it, because it has a lot to say about the talk to me strategy that is being used in prisons. I am happy to converse with the member in due course on the provisions that it sets out.

Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD)

Given what has been highlighted in this new report, can the cabinet secretary confirm whether he is looking at tightening up the deadlines for commencing reviews into deaths in custody as well as improving access to legal aid for families who are navigating what is a very challenging process at the most difficult of times?

Keith Brown

I am not sure whether I caught all of that question, but I think that part of it was about the timetables in relation to fatal accident inquiries. As the member knows, the FAI system is independently run by the Crown Office, and in 2016 the Parliament voted unanimously on the way that it was to be changed. Substantial additional resources have been given to the Crown Office to address that, and there have been substantial successes. However, one way in which we can address this issue is through the deaths in custody review. For example, instead of duplicating certain processes, we might be able to reach a faster conclusion in cases where there is no evidence of criminality.

As for Liam McArthur’s point about families, what we have taken forward as part of the review is a much more consistent approach to informing families at the right time. That sort of thing was not done in the past; indeed, we have had very good engagement from families who had been affected by that very issue. I now understand that, in the past three to four months, every single death in custody has been followed up by a phone call from the governor or an officer in the prison to the family or next of kin to ensure that they are advised as soon as possible.