Scottish Justice Secretary admits system 'lacks compassion' over prison deaths

30 November 2021, 23:30

The Justice Secretary has backed independent investigations into all prison deaths.
The Justice Secretary has backed independent investigations into all prison deaths. Picture: Alamy
Gina Davidson

By Gina Davidson

Every death in prison should be investigated by an independent body, because the current system "lacks the compassion" expected, Scotland's Justice Secretary has said.

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Keith Brown has publicly backed plans for a new, independent organisation to carry out inquiries into the deaths of people in custody after a review - described as a "damning indictment" of the current situation - said affected families should be involved in the process.

The review had involved interviews with families who had lost loved ones while in prison as well as staff and NHS representatives.

A key recommendation of its report is that an external organisation should investigate any death as soon as possible and complete any report within months.

Bereaved family or next of kin should be allowed to be involved in the process and investigators should have "unfettered access" to data, evidence and information, according to the recommendations.

LBC was told by lawyer Aamer Anwar, who represents the families of Katie Allan and William Lindsay, who both took their own lives while in Polmont Young Offenders Institute, that the current system "investigates itself, drags on for years" and relies on an "impotent" Fatal Accident Inquiry process.

While he welcomed the new report, he said he was concerned it would gather dust and asked “how many more families have to set up campaigns simply to get the truth?”

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Commissioned by former justice secretary Humza Yousaf in November 2019, the report makes recommendations on a wide-ranging set of "systemic, practical and compassionate" changes aimed at improving how deaths in prison custody are responded to in Scotland.

It states: "Two pillars of trauma-informed practice are choice and control. Our review showed clearly that families bereaved through a death in prison custody have neither."

Speaking about the report's publication in Holyrood, Mr Brown agreed it was clear that "systemic and operational changes were needed" but that they should not replace existing inquiry bodies.

He continued: "While I have not yet had the opportunity to fully consider the detail and implications of all the findings and recommendations made by the view, I wanted to be clear to Parliament that I accept the recommendations in principle.

"In respect to the key recommendation, I agree that an independent body should carry out an investigation into every death in custody.

"The recommendation is that an independent investigative body which immediately starts a process of engaging with the family and the agencies could provide transparent and prompt information to families at an early stage, much better meeting the needs of bereaved families.

"Families want to know as quickly as possible how their loved one died and what the circumstances of their deaths were.

"This would complement the independent investigation by the Crown Office as to the circumstances of the death.”

Challenged about whether he supported allowing "unfettered access" to investigators, Mr Brown said: "I can't immediately think of any reason why the body shouldn't have those powers."

Following the report's publication, the chairman of a group of people bereaved by deaths in prison custody, Stewart Taylor, said: "Following the death of our son in prison we were honoured to be asked to take part in the review as members of the family advisory group assembled to give input from people most directly affected by a death in custody.

"It quickly became abundantly clear that a system or uniform policy which clearly lays out procedures for dealing with such incidents across the prison estate in Scotland was either sadly lacking or not fit for purpose.

"Within our group only one family thought the Prison Service had dealt with them in a compassionate and helpful way.

"It is our hope that the recommendations in this report are completely endorsed by the Justice Secretary and that the Scottish Prison Service is instructed to implement the recommendations of the report immediately after publication."

The review was co-chaired by Wendy Sinclair-Gieben, chief inspector of prisons for Scotland, Professor Nancy Loucks, chief executive of the charity Families Outside, and Judith Robertson, chairwoman of the Scottish Human Rights Commission.

Ms Sinclair-Gieben said: "In the time that this review has taken place, dozens of people have died in Scotland's prisons and hundreds more have been left to deal with the associated grief, trauma and distress.

"It is clear from our review that systemic change is needed in how such deaths are responded to for both families and staff."

Prof Loucks added: "For too many families, the lack of information and answers drags on for months and even years."