The parents of a vulnerable student who took her own life in Polmont prison after being subjected to bullying and “targeted” strip searches are to press justice minister Humza Yousaf to bring about “radical reform” of the prison service.
Katie Allan’s family say she was “brutalised” and “tormented” by inmates and staff, leading her to commit suicide just three months into a 16 month sentence.
The 21-year-old pleaded guilty at Paisley Sheriff Court in March to two charges after driving more than four times over the legal alcohol limit last August, causing serious injury to Michael Keenan, a teenager she struck with her car. She was found dead in her cell on 4 June.
Her parents, Linda and Stuart, said although Katie’s guilt was never in doubt, she was remorseful for her actions, and they have been backed by the Keenan family in their campaign to change the criminal justice system.
The Allans claim the Scottish Prison Service failed in its duty of care to their daughter, and have called for a review of how female offenders are treated in custody and the provision of mental health services in prison.
They also say Katie could have been punished with a non-custodial sentence, pointing out that a social work report recommended community service, and intend to press for a review of sentencing guidelines.
Aamer Anwar, the human rights lawyer who is representing the Allan family, said jail sentences were not handed down in similar cases, including convictions for death by careless driving.
Speaking at a press conference at the University of Glasgow, where Katie was in the third year of a human geography degree, Mrs Allan said her daughter made a “fatal decision” when deciding to get behind the wheel of her car on 10 August that year, a decision that “cost Katie her life.”
She explained: “We had confidence in the system. We had trust in the justice system that ultimately cost our daughter her life and all but destroyed ours.
“So broken is our justice system, so shrouded in institutional secrecy, so covered in the dust from the endless circling wagons, we simply could not stay silent. It is time for radical change.”
Mrs Allan said she and her husband were not prepared to wait for the results of a Fatal Accident Inquiry which would “change nothing,” adding that they had already raised a catalogue of failings with Brenda Stewart, Polmont’s governor, in the days after Katie’s death.
They include claims that: Katie was singled out for strip searches; she did not receive a proper mental health assessment; and that staff failed to act on warnings she was vulnerable.
Mr Anwar, who also rector of the university, said: “This is an issue not just to the families of the deceased, but prison staff who do not have the resources to deal with mental health provision as well as the aftermath of a suicide.
“The Allans, like many other families before them, have seen a culture of secrecy and defensiveness which is not interested in learning lessons or accepting responsibility.”
Mr Anwar said the changes the campaign hoped to bring about include ensuring prisoners with mental health issues are never placed in solitary confinement, and ensuring all prisoners are able to access suicide prevention services whenever they need to.
He added: “We have lost our way in Scotland. Locking people up in dungeons of despair doesn’t rehabilitate anyone. It simply institutionalises violence and increases the risk of suicide.
“Katie Allan was failed by a system which keeps repeating the same mistakes, her suicide was not inevitable, and her family will fight to ensure that other lives can be saved.”
Margaret Keenan, Michael’s mother, asked the judge in Katie’s case to spare her jail, and said her family was now supporting the Allans.
She said: “Katie didn’t deserve the punishments she received. There were other punishments she could have received which would have been much more fitting for her crime.”
Deborah Coles, executive director of Inquest, which monitors deaths in custody, said: “We do not have the death sentence in the UK, but for Katie that is exactly what this sentence was.
“Bullying, self-harm, and strip searching defined her prison experience. It is clear that the treatment Katie received in prison had a devastating effect on her mental and physical health and the prison failed to respond appropriately and humanely.”
She added that Katie’s death also raised “serious questions about sentencing policy and guidelines.”
The Allans and their legal team have set up a crowdfunder to help raise funds for their legal campaign. As of 1pm, it had raised £1,408 of its £10,000 target.
In a statement, the Scottish Prison Service said: “This is of course a set of very tragic circumstances and our sympathies are with all who have been affected by this sad death.
“All deaths that occur in Scottish prisons are subject to a Fatal Accident Inquiry and as such it would be inappropriate to comment further until this takes place.”
A spokesman for the Scottish Government said: “Our thoughts and condolences are with the family and friends of Katie Allan.
“We recognise the importance of providing a safe and secure environment for those in custody and a Fatal Accident Inquiry is mandatory where someone has died in legal custody.
“It would not be appropriate to comment on the circumstances of this case pending the independent investigation which is being undertaken by the Crown and ahead of an FAI, which is an independent, judicial process that can help provide more information for families.
“Mr Yousaf is happy to meet with the family to listen to their concerns.”