Government ‘failed to improve treatment of people in custody’

The coronavirus pandemic has increased problems with prison overcrowding, a review indicates.

Government ‘failed to improve treatment of people in custody’ iStock

Prisoners and people who have been arrested are still being ill-treated in many cases in Scotland, according to a watchdog set up to prevent inhuman punishment.

The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment carried out inspections at five police stations and five police stations across Scotland in 2018 and 2019, finding a raft of issues.

The Scottish arm of the UK’s National Preventive Mechanism (NPM) – an independent body monitoring places where people are detained – has now published a review into whether agreed improvements had taken place since then.

In its report, the NPM identified “underlying systemic problems” that have prevented progress and stated that many of the concerns raised “do not appear to have been addressed fully by the Scottish Government”.

A key issue is the lack of a “presumption of liberty”, where removing people’s freedoms should only be done as a last resort.

With police arrests, holding people beyond 24 hours – rather than a 12-hour limit as a general rule – frequently occurs, the report suggests, and people are not always told if a friend or family member has been informed of their arrest or had prompt access to a lawyer.

Problems also still persist with the recording of injuries sustained in custody, police complaints handling and a lack of “purposeful activities” for people on remand.

The report adds: “It is apparent different groups of prisoners do not enjoy the same access to various activities. Men on remand and female prisoners held in male prisons are still highlighted as suffering the most”

A recommendation for female prisoners who suffer from severe mental health disorders to be transferred to an appropriate psychiatric facility within two weeks has also not been achieved, while there are still “significant challenges” around the availability of beds on specialist mental health wards.

It also criticised a failure of the prison service to provide information about testing of call bells and response times at HMP Barlinnie, or any update on whether outdoor shelter had been provided at prisons.

The coronavirus pandemic has also increased problems with prison overcrowding and inmates facing increased social isolation, the review found.

It stated: “As more purposeful activities are being provided in-cell, the opportunities for all prisoners to associate with others have shrunk considerably, leading to serious concerns over social isolation.

“In addition, compounded by staff shortages, overcrowding has had a significant negative effect not only on out of cell activity time and the variety of activities available during the pandemic, but also on key activities that prisoners are required to complete as a part of their individual release plans.”

While the chairwoman of the NPM’s Scottish sub group, Judith Robertson, acknowledged “some positive steps” had been taken by the Scottish Government, she added that the report “raises serious concerns”.

She said: “We call on the Scottish Government to implement the outstanding recommendations as soon as possible, in particular taking note of the need for a concerted effort to effectively apply the presumption of liberty.

“This report is a significant step towards monitoring progress, but more work is needed by the Scottish Government to regularly monitor how these recommendations are addressed both now and in future.”

Police Scotland’s Assistant Chief Constable Kenny MacDonald said that people are “inevitably” held in police custody for longer than 24 hours because courts are currently closed during the weekend.

MacDonald also said the force had launched a review into the “consistency and rationale of custodial decision-making”.

He added: “The report discusses delays in solicitor access for a person in custody – however, delaying solicitor consultation under existing legislation is used extremely rarely and can only be permitted if approval is given from an officer independent to the investigation and of the rank of Sergeant or above.

“However, delays may also be attributable due to availability of a solicitor, or the suitability of the person in custody to engage with them due to drug or alcohol consumption and these matters are outwith the control of the police.

“I would also like to make it clear that, in general, police will notify that an arrested person has had their friends or family notified – however, our national custody system does not record this information at this time.

“We are working to review this and if possible have this information formally recorded on the system.”

A Scottish Government spokesman cited £50m in funding, in part to increase court capacity, use remote juries and run additional court venues from September.

He added: “The wellbeing and safety of people in custody is a priority and we will continue to work with our criminal justice and healthcare partners to build on actions already undertaken – despite the pressures of the pandemic – to implement recommendations from the Council of Europe and the UN.

“Important advances have been made in areas such as police custody and the delivery of trauma-informed care for women.

“The report helpfully identifies a variety of other areas where further improvements can also be taken forward.”

STV News is now on WhatsApp

Get all the latest news from around the country

Follow STV News
Follow STV News on WhatsApp

Scan the QR code on your mobile device for all the latest news from around the country

WhatsApp channel QR Code