22 prison suicides since my daughter Katie Allan killed herself belie politicians' claim that every death in custody is a 'tragedy' – Linda Allan
The Mental Welfare Commission (MWC) for Scotland recently published its concerns about the care of women with mental health problems in prison.
Similar concerns were also raised by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) after a visit in 2018.
At Cornton Vale Prison, the CPT found women “who clearly were in need of urgent care and treatment in a psychiatric facility, and should not have been in a prison environment, let alone segregated for extended periods in solitary confinement…”
“For example, one woman had bitten through the skin and muscle of her arm down to the bone; another woman sat in isolation surrounded by blood and faeces on the wall; and a third woman set fire to her own hair in [her] cell,” it added.
As well as the unthinkable horrors highlighted by the CPT, they also rightly pointed out that prison officers are not trained to manage the “highly disturbed” women, although within Cornton Vale, like any other prison in Scotland since 2011, there are NHS staff who can provide therapeutic interventions to severely mentally ill patients.
Countless reports have highlighted the plight of female offenders in Scotland. They are often incarcerated for low-level offences – many after experiencing domestic violence, poverty, homelessness and trauma – and have recently, in ‘response’ to the pandemic, been locked up 23 hours a day. Plans are in progress for new buildings, but I doubt that will solve anything.
The year of the CPT visit was the year my life changed; 2018 was the year our daughter died, alone, in despair in a Scottish prison. It was a Monday morning when police arrived at our home to tell me that Katie was dead.
She had just turned 21. I remember my physical reaction as shock took hold – the shaking – the primal scream. I remember my first words to the police: “She can’t be dead, Katie is in prison.” Such was my belief in the state and such was my naivety.
What I was to learn in the following three years was, as the late journalist Kenneth Roy once described it, “an affront to any civilised society”.
Katie had been sentenced to 16 months in custody after pleading guilty to driving offences. She had no offending history, she had a job, was an undergraduate student, ran her own flat and she had written a deeply remorseful letter to the young man she had injured, pleading for forgiveness.
There were no sentencing alternatives, we were told. She was taken to Cornton Vale prison for her first night in custody then transferred to HMYOI Polmont until her death three months later.
When the Crown Office told us that “everything will take a very long time”, they were not wrong. Over three years have passed and no one has been held accountable, no Fatal Accident Inquiry (FAI) has been held, and at least a further 22 people have died by suicide across the prison estate.
I have used the time well, to grieve, but also to read every report written, every published FAI determination and research article I can find.
An FAI’s purpose is to establish the circumstances of the death, and consider what steps might be taken to prevent other deaths in similar circumstances. Yet how can other deaths be prevented when it can take over three years for an inquiry?
How can deaths be prevented when the formal findings of a sheriff (which are rare beyond cause, place and time of death) are ignored? How can deaths be prevented when the institution to which they apply has a culture designed to crush the human spirit?
Thirteen years before Katie died, an FAI into the death of a 20-year-old man, described as being “a scared wee boy, terrified to go anywhere” within Polmont found no defects in his treatment, precautions that could have been taken or facts relevant to his death. Since then a further eight young people have died by suicide at Polmont, but only five FAI determinations are publicly available, with two not published and two not yet held.
Only one FAI was held within a year of the death and only one family had legal representation. Perhaps most shocking is that only one of the FAIs found anything significant that could have been done differently and it took over two years. It is hard to accept that in the intervening time between this tragic death and the publication of the FAI report, Katie died.
The current treatment of young people and women in our prison service is more than an “affront to any civilised society”, it is criminal – a moral, ethical and legal offence.
And not a single soul has been held accountable – not a prison officer, not a governor, not a politician. And, as a society, we simply don’t care.
I have thought a lot about why there is no public outcry. Perhaps it’s because society holds tight to a culture of retribution or perhaps it’s because there are no votes to be won by showing compassion to offenders.
We have met with governors, officials, Cabinet Secretaries, chief inspectors and they all agree that “every death in custody is a tragedy”.
I don’t agree with their sentiment. If it was meant, there would not have been 22 suicides since Katie died.
I even bumped into the First Minister during the 2019 general election campaign. I was grateful for her sympathy and offer to “do anything to help”. We have a list. It starts with ‘A’ for accountability.
Just a few weeks after Katie’s death, Kenneth Roy published an article on the trauma Katie experienced in HMYOI Polmont, concluding “her suicide poses several difficult and urgent questions, yet by the time our flawed judicial system finally stirs itself into some examination of her death, memories will have faded and the extremely limited public interest in the case will have long evaporated. How convenient for all concerned”.
There has been no urgency to examine the facts that led to Katie’s death, unlike the urgency that led to her incarceration. There have now been two reviews of the flawed FAI system in Scotland, the latest published the year after Katie’s death in 2019 which recommended that the Sudden Fatalities Investigation Unit should “prioritise the FAI of any death of a young person in legal custody”.
I think the Crown office has a different definition of “priority” to me. I will, however, continue to forensically examine all the evidence I can find as my post-traumatic growth strengthens.
I am going nowhere, my memories won’t fade, they are all written down in triplicate. That is how I now love my daughter.
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