Four prisoners have been found dead in Scottish jails in four days, just after MSPs heard evidence from Scotland’s public spending watchdog that the country’s prison service (SPS) was on the brink of a safety crisis.
Three of the prisoners died at the country's largest jail, Barlinnie, with the fourth found dead at Low Moss in Dunbartonshire - Fatal Accident Inquiries (FAIs) will now be held into each death, although BBC Scotland understands at least two of the men died from natural causes.
FAIs are compulsory legal proceedings instigated in response to any and all fatalities that occur in Scottish prisons, in order to establish the circumstances of a death, the equivalent of an inquest. Nonetheless, the inmates’ grieving families are likely to be waiting many years for judgments — in February 2017 it was revealed the deaths of 60 prisoners in Scottish jails since 2012, almost half the total number who died in custody during that five-year period, were yet to be properly investigated or explained. Seven of the 121 inmates who'd died were women — but only the FAI of 19-year-old Sarah Mitchell, who killed herself in Cornton Vale prison May 12 2012, had been concluded by that time.
On 31st October, Holyrood's Public Audit Committee heard evidence on an Audit Scotland report which said the SPS faced profound challenges in continuing to operate safely and effectively due to mass overcrowding.
Caroline Gardner, Auditor General for Scotland, said the service's revenue budget reduced by 12.5 percent in real terms between 2014 – 2019, from £394.7 million to £345.2 million, despite costs still rising, prisoner numbers increasing by nearly nine percent in 2018/19 to 8,212 and significant increases in assaults by prisoners against staff and other prisoners and in stress-related sickness among staff.
"Scotland's prisons are running well over operating capacity. The SPS faces a combination of severe pressures on many fronts, this poses a threat to operational safety, effectiveness and financial sustainability,” Gardner added.
The committee also heard that 10 of the country's 15 jails were operating over capacity, with Barlinnie 40 percent overcrowded, while staff sickness levels at Perth Prison have risen to 50 percent.
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Chief Inspector of Prisons for Scotland Wendy Sinclair-Geiben said the ever-rising prison population meant it was increasingly difficult for staff to offer meaningful activities to inmates, leading to them spending more time in cells. Infrastructure at prisons was also said to be disintegrating, with Sinclair-Geiben describing conditions at Barlinnie as “shocking".
"I urge you to go and have a look at it, to walk along corridors where plaster dust rains on your head…we actually see Scotland as leading edge in penology and yet we're happy to ask staff and prisoners to live and work here. I feel quite strongly, even though I recognise we’re in a period of fiscal prudence," she said.
Glasgow City Council is considering whether to replace Barlinnie with a new 1,200-capacity prison, but the SPS said it was unlikely the project could be completed before 2025. An SPS spokesperson said prisoner numbers were increasing because of a number of factors including jail sentences getting longer, due to among other things the growth in historical sex cases.