Suicide of vulnerable student at Polmont suggests enlightened rehabilitation strategies are only for show, writes Dani Garavelli.
In December 2016, I sat in the Scottish Prison Service College at Polmont as a series of experts launched the SPS’s new suicide prevention strategy, Talk To Me. Acknowledging past failings, chief executive Colin McConnell spoke of the complexities of caring for a population with disproportionate mental health problems and outlined the measures being put in place to reduce the number of deaths.
There was no doubting his sincerity; McConnell’s vision of prisons as a place for rehabilitation rather than punishment is well-established. With him at the helm, the SPS has introduced a range of bold initiatives designed to help prisoners maintain family ties and learn new skills to help them reintegrate into their communities on release.
At the launch, McConnell said the guiding principle of Talk To Me was that suicides could only be prevented when the whole prison community, including those in custody, worked together to identify those at risk and encourage them to accept help and support.
The policy would encourage a shift in emphasis from the use of safer cells, which do nothing to tackle underlying problems, to the use of therapeutic interventions and other out-of-cell activities. It also aimed to promote better family liaison, with relatives encouraged to raise concerns with prison staff, and more link-ups with charities such as Breathing Space and The Samaritans.
It all sounded very enlightened; a world away from the more rigid approach to incarceration taken by successive prison ministers south of the border. Surely the suicide rate in Scottish jails, which exceeded that in English and Welsh jails and had spiked the previous year, would start to go down.
It was doubly shocking then – 18 months later – to learn of the death of 21-year-old Katie Allan, a Glasgow University student who killed herself in Polmont Young Offenders’ Institution during a 16-month sentence for causing serious injury by dangerous driving while over the drink-drive limit.
As details of her downward spiral emerged, it became clear her treatment while incarcerated was shoddy. Her declining mental health – obvious from her alopecia, which had been flagged up to the prison doctor – was apparently ignored, along with her self-harming and bullying by other inmates.
Last week, her parents, Linda and Stuart, called for a review of the way mental health is managed in the Scottish penal system. Listening to their account, it is clear their daughter was failed on every level.
Before we come to Katie’s experience in Polmont, there are questions to be asked about why she was put there in the first place. The policy is to reduce the prison population and to keep women out of the system wherever possible.
Katie was a young student who made a stupid mistake; she had a bright future ahead of her and was hugely remorseful for what she had done. She wrote several times to the parents of the 15-year-old she knocked down (who went on to make a full recovery). In an unusual gesture, they wrote to the Crown to ask that she should not be jailed, saying they did not want this one incident to define her life. A social work report also recommended community service.
Despite this, Sheriff David Pender said he could not justify a non-custodial sentence – a conclusion it’s difficult to understand. Katie had drunk four pints before she got into her car, so she deserved to be punished. But what benefit to her or society could have accrued from placing her alongside serial offenders?
This sentence combined with her treatment in jail meant her life wasn’t merely defined by one mistake, it was ended by it. In Polmont, her parents say frequent strip-searches, carried out because she was compliant, left her feeling violated and humiliated.
On the night before she died, when she was distressed, officers allegedly told her they would move her to the adult prison rather than deal with those who were bullying her. They then locked her in her cell and went home.
This ordeal is a million miles from the values enshrined in Talk To Me; but it does resonate with some of the things we have previously heard about the system. For example, in 2014, the Ferret news agency’s analysis of FAIs into 34 prison suicides since 2009 uncovered flaws in the implementation of the previous strategy, Act2Care. Those flaws included communication breakdowns between courts and prisons, inadequate staff training and a failure by prison staff to follow procedures. In 2014/15, four FAIs into deaths in custody also drew attention to a lack of information as to how families could raise their fears over a relative’s state of mind. Then, just weeks before the launch of the new strategy, the Royal College of Nursing published the first review of the service since the NHS took over responsibility for the provision of healthcare in jails in 2011. It revealed the transfer had not improved outcomes and said there were still “significant concerns” over the management of prisoners’ mental health.
A further concern is the time it takes to hold FAIs into deaths in custody. According to figures released by lawyer Aamer Anwar, FAIs are still outstanding on 76 prison deaths in the past four years. Six of them date back to 2014. Many of these deaths will not be suicides and some will be recent. Still, the average timescale for an FAI into a death in custody is said to be between two and four years. Such lengthy delays mean deficiencies in the system go undetected and lessons about how the care of vulnerable prisoners could be improved go unlearned.
Katie’s parents want a meeting with the Justice Secretary, Humza Yousaf, and a review of the prison service, of women in custody and the provision of mental health services. At last week’s press conference, Linda said: “Our decision to speak with the press and expose ourselves and our families to hurtful, cruel comments on social media isn’t because we are so-called middle-class nor because Katie was a woman.
“Our decision was made because Katie was not the first young person to die in custody in Scotland; indeed this could happen to anyone irrespective of class, race, gender, sexual orientation or ability.”
Scotland’s prisons are full of fragile people. Katie’s death is testament to the fact that enlightened strategies and right-on policy documents are not an end in themselves.
Unless the system is properly resourced and McConnell’s vision of rehabilitation is communicated to and shared by all officers, they are merely glossy showpieces to wave in front of the Scottish Government and the media. Only when every member of staff has the will and requisite training to build up positive, mutually respectful relationships with prisoners and their families can the goal of a prison service that empowers those in their care to “unlock their true potential and to transform their lives as fully enfranchised and contributing citizens” be fully realised.