In November 2019, the Cabinet Secretary for Justice commissioned an independent review into the response to deaths in prison custody. The Independent Review of the Response to Deaths in Prison Custody was published in November 2021.
In early 2022, it was decided to bring in an external chair to oversee the implementation of the recommendations. I took up the role in April 2022, forming the Deaths in Prison Custody Action Group soon afterwards.
My first priority was to engage with families who had direct experience of losing a loved one through death in prison custody. A Family Reference Group was formed, which included some families who had contributed to the original Review. The membership has changed and increased over time with four more families joining the Group who were bereaved by the death of a loved one in prison after the Review was published in November 2021.
Families involved in this work are generously sharing their experiences in the hope that the response to the death of a relative in prison is improved for other families in the future. They share a desire to help improve the understanding of factors leading to deaths in prison in order to reduce and prevent more deaths.
The Review recognised the importance of data and analysis, with part of the key recommendation being that an independent body should produce and publish reports analysing data on deaths in custody, identifying trends and systemic issues.
Two important recommendations are aimed at understanding causes of deaths in prison and identifying trends with a view to preventing future deaths. Recommendation 1.1 states that leaders of national oversight bodies should work together with families to support the development of a new single framework on preventing deaths in custody. Recommendation 3.4 asks for a comprehensive review into the main causes of all deaths in prison custody.
I introduced an Understanding and Preventing Deaths in Prison Working Group, which sits under the Deaths in Prison Custody Action Group, to take these recommendations forward.
The Scottish Prison Service publishes data on its website, including date of admission; date of death; age; gender; ethnic group; legal status, and medical cause of death (from 2019 onwards). There has been no published analysis or identification of trends by the Scottish Prison Service or the Scottish Government, despite the data having been publicly available since 2012.
Whilst long overdue, this paper is welcome and presents a high level analysis of the data published by the Scottish Prison Service on deaths in prison between 2012 and 2022. Overall the analysis shows that there has been an increase in the number of deaths in prison over that period. It is the first in a series of reports that will be produced over the coming year. The next stage will be work with the National Records of Scotland to examine causes of deaths in prison in more detail, and to make comparisons with trends in the general population.
I will be particularly interested to see the age distribution of the prison population compared with the general population, and what analysis might tell us about the prevalence of suicide amongst young people in prison.
The healthcare provision across the prison estate and the efficiency of resources to escort people in prison to access medical appointments/treatment will also be an area of interest for future analysis.
This paper represents a start to the important work of improving the data, evidence, and analysis around prison deaths with a view to identifying factors and causes, and to prevent future deaths.
I would like to thank all those involved in producing this paper, including colleagues working in the Scottish Prison Service, the Justice Analytical Services at the Scottish Government, and the NHS National Prison Care Network.
External Chair, Oversight of implementation of recommendations
Independent Review of Response to Deaths in Prison Custody
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