Pubdate: Fri, 10 Jul 1998
Source: Scotsman (UK) 
Author: Alastair Dalton


UKP1.1m initiative announced after deaths of five inmates in ten days 

THE Government yesterday launched a UKP1.1 million initiative to tackle
Scotland's spiralling jail suicide rate following the worst spate of deaths
in the prison service's history.

New measures to identify and help prisoners at risk of killing themselves
were announced yesterday by the Scottish home affairs minister, Henry
McLeish, after the deaths of five inmates in ten days.

Mr McLeish signalled moves to extend the availability of non-custodial
sentences, including electronic tagging and new drug treatment orders, which
he predicted judges and sheriffs would take up.

The initiatives come in response to a report ordered by Mr McLeish last week
into the latest suicides after The Scotsman highlighted the extent of the

Improvements will be made to the regimes at the three prisons with the
highest suicide levels, with 33 extra staff drafted in and a task force set
up to investigate this year's ten deaths.

Mr McLeish expressed shock at the latest spate of deaths, but stressed there
was no quick fix to the problem. He said that the measures were designed to
beef up a suicide risk management strategy introduced last month.

The strategy, introduced two days before the first of the latest deaths,
focuses on encouraging mutual awareness of - and support for - prisoners at
risk within jails, rather than isolating them in solitary confinement.

A senior Scottish Prison Service official told The Scotsman yesterday the
SPS was "bloody good" at caring for prisoners who were known suicide risks,
almost all of whom were prevented from killing themselves. However, the
problem centred on identifying the others before it was too late, but
prisons needed to get more information from courts and doctors about
offenders' drug and psychiatric backgrounds.

This year's suicide toll, half of which came between 24 June and 4 July,
compares with 14 deaths in 1997 and 16 in 1998.

The latest deaths were those of Mary Cowan, 27, who was awaiting sentence in
Cornton Vale women's prison, near Stirling, for theft; Ian Taylor, 26, on
remand at Barlinnie prison in Glasgow for breaching the peace while on bail;
Stuart Adam, 19, on remand at Longriggend remand centre, near Airdrie for
sexual offences; and Paul Morrow, 26, serving life for murder at Glenochil
prison, near Alloa.

Eighty prisoners have killed themselves in Scottish jails since 1992, with
the death rate now almost twice that of prisons south of the Border.

The new measures include an eight-bed unit for vulnerable prisoners, with
three extra nurses, at Barlinnie, where 11 prisoners have killed themselves
since 1996.

At Gateside prison in Greenock, which has seen nine deaths in the same
period, improvements will be made to the regime and admission procedures in
the troubled A Hall, "to create a more therapeutic environment". The chief
inspector of prisons, Clive Fairweather, said last month they might as well
install an undertaker's office in the hall.

Twelve extra staff will added, while illegal immigrants housed there while
awaiting deportation will be moved to Longriggend.

Cornton Vale, which has had five deaths since 1996, will receive an extra 16
staff, while cells will be converted from single to shared units to reduce
inmates' isolation.

The task force, which will include members of outside groups, will
investigate the circumstances surrounding this year's suicides, all of which
will also be the subject of fatal accident inquiries. It will report by
September, with Mr McLeish promising further action if required.

The minister also announced the appointment of a second co-ordinator to
monitor and assess the suicide prevention strategy, which aims to encourage
prisoners to seek help provided by a range of staff rather than just the
prison's medical officer.

More than 3,000 of the 4,600 SPS staff have received awareness training
under the strategy. A prison listener scheme, in which prisoners are trained
by the Samaritans to counsel fellow inmates, will also be extended.

Mr McLeish said: "I want to reassure the public about the seriousness with
which I and the Scottish Prison Service are approaching the tragic problem
of prison suicides. We are deeply conscious of the concern that has been

Acknowledging the role played by The Scotsman, he said: "We will do our
utmost to tackle the problems highlighted in the press in recent weeks."

He said: "This is a complex area, there is no quick fix."

Mr McLeish said the problem should be seen in the context of increasing
suicide rates, particularly among young men in the west of Scotland, coupled
with rising drug use.

A particular problem existed at Barlinnie, which admitted up to 200 new
prisoners every Monday.

Mr McLeish said: "I want to ensure that prison is not used inappropriately
so that those who have to be held there receive the best attention we can
give them."

Mr Fairweather said the new measures anticipated recommendations to be made
in his forthcoming annual report, but he stressed the importance of caring
for remand prisoners.

Jim Dawson, deputy general secretary of the Scottish Prison Officers
Association, welcomed the moves, but called for more staff at Barlinnie.

He said: "Alternatives to custody are fine, but the public has a right to
expect to be protected from habitual petty criminals."

Susan Matheson, chief executive of the penal reform group SACRO, said: "We
are absolutely delighted at the greater emphasis on non-custodial alternatives."

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Checked-by: Melodi Cornett