Following the death of two young people in custody, their families call for measures to tackle suicides from the Scottish Government
SCOTLAND has failed the test of a civilised society following the death of two young people in custody by suicide, according to lawyer and human rights advocate Aamer Anwar.
The cases of 21-year-old Katie Allan and 16-year-old William Lindsay, both of whom died by suicide while imprisoned in Polmont Young Offenders Institution near Falkirk, have brought fresh attention to how Scotland deals with young offenders and triggered calls for the reform of the Scottish prison service, which were articulated by Anwar on behalf of Allan and Lindsay’s families in a meeting with justice secretary Humza Yousaf today [13 November].
Allan, a geography student, was convicted in March of this year at Paisley Sheriff Court for a drink-driving offense which resulted in the injury of a pedestrian, receiving a 16-month sentence.
According to her parents, Allan was subsequently bullied while incarcerated in Polmont, and expressed her distress over repeated strip searches to University of Glasgow chaplain Stuart McQuarrie. It has also been alleged that staff at the young offenders’ institution failed to act on warnings from Allan’s family that that she had a history of self-harm and may therefore be at risk in these conditions.
“Any death of a young person is a tragedy for the individual and their family. As with any death in custody, there will of course be a mandatory FAI [Fatal Accident Inquiry]. However, I am determined that appropriate early actions are taken.” Justice secretary Humza Yousaf
Linda Allan, Katie’s mother, said today in a statement released by Aamer Anwar & Co: “She believed passionately in social justice and equality. She was compassionate, kind, intelligent and hard working. She was our daughter and Scott’s sister. She had never committed a crime, she had a fearful respect for the law.
“On the 10 August 2017 she made the fatal decision to drive her car over the legal alcohol limit. That one decision cost Katie her life. Her hopes and ambitions ended on the 4 June 2018. After months of torture, violation and bullying her human spirit was decimated. Alone in a cell in HMPYOI Polmont, she hung herself.”
William Lindsay, who was also known as William Brown, died on 7 October, several days after the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) website records him being remanded at Glasgow Sheriff Court. Lindsay was arrested on 2 October, after walking into Saracen police station with a knife for unknown reasons. He was subsequently charged with police assault and breach of the peace.
The Scotsman newspaper has reported that both those reporting the offences and the social work department wanted Lindsay to be treated as a child, placed in a secure unit and kept within the children’s hearing system, which would have allowed for the option of secure care.
Instead, Lindsay was remanded to Polmont. His death by suicide makes him the forth young person to die by that means this year alone.
“A civilised society is judged by the manner in which we treat our vulnerable, the weak, the dispossessed and our prisoners. We believe Scotland is failing the test.” Lawyer Aamer Anwar
Yousaf, who addressed the Scottish Parliament during Topical Questions shortly after the meeting – which was also attended by members of the Allan family – publicly offered his “sympathy and condolences” to the bereaved, and stated: “This government has worked hard to keep children out of the criminal justice system.
“I am of course aware of concerns raised through recent cases around mental health provision in HMP Polmont. Any death of a young person is a tragedy for the individual and their family. As with any death in custody, there will of course be a mandatory FAI [Fatal Accident Inquiry]. However, I am determined that appropriate early actions are taken to ensure the wellbeing of young people in custody.”
Regarding his meeting with the Allan family, Yousaf said that “there is no doubt at all they have questions that they want the answers to immediately.
“The reassurance I can give to Katie Allan’s family and indeed to William Lindsay’s family is that if there are learnings – which I have no doubt there are – for us to learn, here and now, in the immediate and the short-term, we will do what we can to enact them.”
Yousaf gave a commitment to the Allan family that “making our prison estates as safe and secure as possible” will be a priority for any forthcoming cross-government discussions on this matter.”
Scottish Liberal Democrat justice spokesperson Liam McArthur MSP highlighted the fact that there have been, by his count, 76 deaths in Scottish prisons, stretching back to six deaths in 2014, which have not yet received an FAI, and quoted the late Scottish writer Kenneth Roy’s analysis that this amounted to “a catalogue of delay and obfuscation.”
Yousaf emphasised that FAIs were the responsibility of the Lord Advocate, but agreed that there “are questions to be asked around the FAI process.”
“The families of Katie Allan and William Lindsay hold the Scottish Prison Service, the Health Service and care system directly responsible for their deaths and they will fight to ensure that other lives can be saved.” Lawyer Aamer Anwar
Following the meeting with the justice secretary, Anwar today laid the blame for Allan and Lindsay’s deaths at the feet of the SPS, the Heath Service and the Scottish care system, accusing the SPS’s system of recording deaths of covering up a “spiralling epidemic” of suicides in custody.
The brief prepared by Anwar for Yousaf on behalf of the families elaborated on this, pointing out that in 2018 there have been 26 deaths in Scottish prisons, yet with only one recorded as a case of suicide.
To emphasise this, the brief states that Allan’s death certificate records her cause of death as hanging, but the SPS website registers it as ‘Not Determined- Awaiting FAI’.
Echoing McArthur’s point, the brief also notes that while there were five reported suicides in 2016, 17 FAIs are still await, while 23 are awaited for 2017, and for 2018, 25.
Anwar was also critical of the FAI process, and expressed the families’ disappointment with the nature of an upcoming inspection of Polmont.
In a statement released by his office, Anwar said: “Families like the Allan’s and Lindsay’s are tired of grieving at gravesides knowing that the cries for help by Katie and William were ignored.
“There was nothing inevitable about William and Katie taking their own lives, it was clear to anybody that cared to look, that they were vulnerable and at risk of taking their own lives.
“Locking people up in dungeons of despair doesn’t rehabilitate anyone. It institutionalises violence and increases the risk of suicide.
Anwar continued: “The families of Katie Allan and William Lindsay hold the Scottish Prison Service, the Health Service and care system directly responsible for their deaths and they will fight to ensure that other lives can be saved.
“The inhumane treatment of Christine the mother of 16 year old William Lindsay reflects how the same system miserably failed her son.
“On Sunday 7th October when two police officers attended her house to tell her that her son had taken his own life, that was the first and last the authorities were in touch.
“According to Christine neither the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service or the SPS has bothered to contact her at all.
“We believe that the SPS’s system of recording deaths in prison hides the spiralling epidemic of suicides in our prisons.
“The FAI system is broken with delays of up to several years. The lack of funding and representation for families denies them a voice.”
Anwar pointed out that when FAIs do take place, there are no binding recommendations, no oversight mechanism to see if there is any implementation in prisons of the findings. Anwar went on to argue that additional funding alone to the Crown Office will not resolve this “crisis of delays”.
“A civilised society is judged by the manner in which we treat our vulnerable, the weak, the dispossessed and our prisoners. We believe Scotland is failing the test.
“It’s time that the voice of the voiceless was heard. The family welcomed the meeting with Mr Yousaf this afternoon and his positive response and determination to bring about change. He stated that he will not be waiting for an FAI to take action.”
Anwar and the Lindsay and Allan families have called upon the justice secretary to take a series of measures to tackle suicides in custody, including demands for an immediate inspection of HMYOI Polmont. According to Anwar, Yousaf has confirmed that an inspection is already underway, however concerns were raised at the meeting that the inspectors did not speak to Allan’s family or Lindsay’s, and according to their lawyer, have no intention of doing so.
Additionally, Anwar has argued that the fact that the inspection is already announced takes away the element of surprise.
The family have asked for an “overarching independent review of suicides in Scottish prisons and mental health provision with the assistance of a panel of experts.”
A crowdfunder has also been launched for a legal campaign, calling for an “immediate review and radical reform of the Prison System and provision of mental health services”, and to pay the legal costs involved in seeking answers directly from the the Scottish Government and the prison service, rather than waiting a potential four years for the result of the FAI. It can be found here.
Picture courtesy of Humza Yousaf
HELP US BUILD A COMMON FUTURE TOGETHER: Support our work at allofusfirst.org/donate