Scottish prison deaths at record high with mental health worsening

Over the last two years, 29 prisoners died by suicide, with 25 drug-related deaths.

Scottish prison deaths at record high with mental health worsening iStock

The number of people dying in Scottish prisons is at a record high, with a jump in the number of deaths from suicide and drugs amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Researchers at the University of Glasgow found there were 121 deaths in prisons in Scotland between January 2020 and September this year.

It is up on the 98 deaths recorded between 2017 and 2019, and a further increase on the 76 deaths between 2014 and 2016.

Over the last two years, 29 prisoners died by suicide, with 25 drug-related deaths, while 15 were Covid related.

Forty-two deaths were attributed to ‘other’ causes such as medical conditions and there were two homicides.

The figures were published in a new report, titled ‘Still Nothing to See Here?‘ focusing on the issue.

Those behind the study indicated that Covid restrictions – such as prisoners spending less time out of cells, fewer members of staff, and prolonged isolation – had caused significant mental distress.

Professor Sarah Armstrong, co-author of the report, described the rise in the number of people dying in prisons as “deeply disturbing”.

“There are very few mandatory Covid restrictions affecting people outside prison, but these continue inside Scottish prisons, including reduced face-to-face visiting, less opportunities to spend time outside of cells, and fewer members of staffing,” she said.

“After many years of research, it is widely accepted that this kind of prolonged isolation causes significant mental distress.

“While the numbers of people dying in prisons remains deeply disturbing, the fact it has accelerated under these conditions and led to more deaths from causes associated with distress, despair and isolation, such as suicide and drug-deaths, is not surprising.

“We would therefore urge the Scottish Prison Service to take urgent action to life those restrictions and make improving mental health a priority for those in prison.”

Jamie Greene, Scottish Conservative justice spokesman, called for urgent action to tackle the number of deaths in Scottish prisons.

“It’s deeply concerning to see deaths in Scottish prisons reach a record high and that they are significantly worse than in England,” he said.

“It’s clear that not enough is being done to tackle suicides and drug deaths and that FAIs are not providing recommendations that lead to improvement.

“I raised this directly with Nicola Sturgeon two months ago and despite warm words of assurance, things are going from bad to worse in Scotland’s crumbling prisons estate.

“The Scottish Government has known about these concerns for years, yet someone going to prison now is twice as likely to die in custody as they were in 2008.

“There must be urgent action now to tackle these avoidable tragedies.”

A Scottish Prison Service spokesperson said: “We recognise the profound emotional distress experienced by families when a loved one dies in custody.

“Our vision is for people within our care to have the best possible health and wellbeing and, where mental health problems do occur, that they get the respect, support, treatment, and care they require.

“We work closely with NHS partners to develop individualised plans, and provide contact with Samaritans, where trained Listeners provide additional support. Talk To Me, developed in partnership with experts in suicide prevention, in line with the Scottish Government’s National Suicide Prevention Strategy, provides person-centred care for those most at risk.

“We have an increasingly complex population, with more older people in our care, who have the same health and care challenges as in the wider community, as well as high levels of health inequalities, mental health problems, and addiction issues.

“We continue to work with partner agencies to deliver overdose awareness activities, recovery cafes, and wider support services, and we have introduced a ‘Prison 2 Rehab’ pathway, which provides access to rehabilitation programmes directly from the point of liberation.

“And the introduction of photocopying of mail has led to a significant fall in both incidents of drug-taking, and emergency ambulance calls related to illicit substance use.”

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