Suicidal prisoners put in ‘torture cells’ instead of care, survey says

The mother of a woman who took her own life at Polmont Young Offenders' Institution says suicidal inmates are being put in “torture cells” instead of being given therapeutic care.

Professor Linda Allan, whose 21-year-old daughter Katie died in 2018, gave a lengthy statement to the Child Abuse Inquiry in Scotland as it investigates abuse in young offender institutions.

Although Katie did not die in one of these “secure cells”, Professor Allan said prisoners are reluctant to admit mental health problems because of the conditions they will be placed in as a result.

Her statement described how Katie had been bullied at Polmont and how she had tried to help her daughter in the weeks before her death.

Professor Alan conducts research into prison deaths as well as campaigning for reform.

He told Lady Smith's inquiry that there had been a “staggering” increase in suicides in custody, despite a new strategy to reduce them being introduced in 2016.

The consultant nurse, who holds an honorary professorship at the University of Glasgow, did not appear in person at the inquest in Edinburgh, but her statement was read out by a member of the inquest team.

Professor Allan said Katie was part of a “normal family” in East Renfrewshire and was studying geography at Glasgow University.

In 2018, he was convicted of dangerous driving and drink driving following an incident where a 15-year-old boy was knocked down.

She was a first-time offender and her family did not expect a custodial sentence.

Professor Alan said: “When he was sentenced he turned to me and said ‘help me mum'.

“It was horrible.”

He said Katie first experienced bullying from another woman in Polmont who asked her for coffee and cigarettes.

When that woman was moved away, other young offenders turned on Katie as the woman supplied them with drugs, Professor Allan said.

She said her daughter was “petrified” by most of the prison officers and did not want to confide in them.

Prison activities eroded her sense of self-worth, with Professor Allan saying: “Katie studied geography … she was given a map of the world and told to color it.”

He said those who are “imprisoned” in custody will not tell prison staff if they are having suicidal thoughts because “secure cells” for suicide observation are so sparse, with inmates stripped of their clothing and personal belongings.

He said: “If someone is suicidal, what they need is a healing environment. Instead, what happens is that they are put in a torture cell.”

Her statement also described how Katie felt “degraded” during inquests following family visits.

Her family have campaigned for better access to phones in prison, with Professor Allan saying: “We believe that if Katie had access to a phone then she would still be alive.”

On the last day Professor Alan saw her daughter, Katie hadn't slept in three days and was upset in the visitors' area.

She said that throughout the night other inmates shouted abuse at her, with some saying she “could defend herself”.

Professor Alan told a prison officer and later Katie found out she was to be moved with adult prisoners ‘upstairs' at Polmont.

The next day she was found dead in her cell.

Professor Allan said that since Katie's death her family had been on a “five-year journey of paperwork and further trauma”.

He said: “Five years on and there is still no accountability for Katie's death.”

I'm surprised they still use solitary confinement

Dr Derek Chiswick

Following an inquiry into deaths in custody, he said it was “astounded” that suicides in Scottish prisons had increased by 40% since a prevention strategy called Talk To Me was introduced.

Earlier on Friday, Scotland's child abuse inquiry heard evidence from Dr Derek Chiswick, a psychiatrist who carried out a review following a series of suicides at Glenochil's young offenders' complex in the 1980s.

His review found that some measures at the detention center were “inhumane and unacceptable”.

Young prisoners under suicide observation were kept in strict isolation in bare cells with almost no contact.

Coroner James Peoples KC read him a preview of Professor Allan's evidence, which he said was “very moving and the events she described are absolutely tragic”.

He said the safe cells described by Professor Allan bore similarities to those encountered by a Glenochil in the 1980s.

Dr Chiswick added: “I am amazed that they are still using solitary confinement cells like this for people who may have mental symptoms.”

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