Suicide rate in Scottish prisons higher than previous estimates

The suicide rate in Scotland prisons has been underestimated, with delays in determining causes of death providing a misleading picture, according to research.

Researchers say prison suicides may be more frequent than previously thought.

Academics at the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research (SCCJR) said the suicide rate for 2015-18 was 125 per 100,000, “substantially higher” than that observed in England and Wales and around ten times the rate for the general Scottish population.

On Tuesday, a review of mental health provision at Polmont Young Offenders’ Institution published by HM Inspectorate of Prisons for Scotland (HMIPS) identified systemic failings and a lack of attention to those at risk.

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HMIPS was asked to carry out the work by the Scottish Government following the suicides last year of William Lindsay, 16, and Katie Allan, 21.

Katie’s parents have previously claimed that the number of suicides in Scotland’s jails is being “covered up” by the authorities.

The SCCJR, a collaboration of academics at four Scottish universities, carried out an evidence review as part of the HMIPS review.

SCCJR director Sarah Armstrong said: “We found the quality of research data on suicide numbers in prison varied greatly with one report basing their analysis on the Scottish Prison Service’s published figures that showed there were 22 suicides between 2011 and 2014 when in fact, according to SPS’s own internal analysis, it was actually 31. Categorisation of self-inflicted deaths along with lengthy delays in Fatal Accident Inquiries can fuel misleading analyses about prison suicide rates. Scotland’s suicide rate for 2015-18 is 125 per 100,000 which is substantially higher than that observed in England and Wales and is around ten times the rate for the general Scottish population.”

Dr Armstrong added: “Suicide is the leading cause of death of young people in prison in Scotland and so it is essential that the data captured on this is both robust and independently verified to ensure accuracy of further research.”

The Allan family undertook its own research into prison deaths earlier this year, concluding that over the past decade, 40 per cent of prisoner deaths were suicides, with suicides now accounting for half of all deaths in custody compared with 35 per cent in 2008.

They said: “As we have been trying to come to terms with the death of our daughter and understand the sequence of failures that led to Katie taking her own life, we have been extremely frustrated at the limited amount of information available to the public on deaths in Scottish prisons.”

A spokesman for the Scottish Prison Service said: “The safety and wellbeing of everyone in our care continues to be a priority for SPS and work is already underway to strengthen the support available.”