It’s an awful, tragic, case. The parent’s anger and despair are understandable, but is it, on its own, news of the kind a public service broadcaster should headline and dwell on at some length? Leaving aside the fact that the case has not yet been confirmed as suicide by a Fatal Accident Inquiry, the BBC Scotland report had time for the parents and other non-professionals to talk at length and to suggest that despite this being a single case, based entirely on comments made to the parents, by the victim and without any contextual evidence, the problem was systemic. Remember the BBC has a royal charter obliging it to educate, to inform and to entertain. It also claims to employ balance in reports. Giving the team at Reporting Scotland the benefit of the doubt, can we discount ‘entertaining?’ What about educating and informing though? What about balancing evidence? The report did not even approach answers to, for example, these obvious questions:
How common is suicide by women in Scottish jails?
Is it increasing?
Is it more or less common than in other countries?
Is the imprisonment of women common in Scotland?
Does the government already have plans to reduce the imprisonment of women?
So, without the benefit of numerous research assistants, I offer these answers below.
Deaths in Custody in Scottish Prisons: Female suicide
Suicides(F) Natural Causes Not determined Other
2018 0(0) 0 25 0
2017 3(0) 3 23 0
2016 5(1) 6 17 0
2015 2(0) 15 5 0
2014 4(1) 12 7 1
2013 7(0) 15 0 2
2012 8(1) 9 0 1
2011 6(0) 15 2 0
2010 6(0) 15 2 0
2009 6(0) 13 2 0
So, suicide by women in Scottish prisons seems rare with no more than 1 in any year, with 7 out of ten years with no cases and only 3 in total over the last ten years. Also, there is no evidence that the problem is increasing over time. It would have been useful for viewers to be told that. Does this suggest any kind of headline-worthy wider crisis in Scotland’s prisons? No. Note, that none in 2018 have been confirmed as yet.
There are typically between 390 and 400 women in Scottish prisons, far fewer pro rata, than the 7 400 men. That, in itself, is informative. Clearly there is already a tendency for women not to be incarcerated in Scotland.
So, the female suicide rate, over the last 10 years, in Scottish prisons, is 3 in 10 years or, on average, 0.3 cases in any year.
Is suicide high compared with prisons in England?
Twelve women killed themselves in English prisons in 2016 (the most recent year for which there are confirmed figures) and, unlike the Scottish figures, the English figures suggest female suicide in English prisons is increasing.
In an average year, there are 0.3 female suicides in Scottish prisons. In England, based on 2015 and 2016, there was an average of 9. The population ratio is 10 to 1. The pro rata number, 0.9 suicides in a year, in English prisons is three times higher than that, 0.3, in Scotland.
Does the SNP Government have plans to reduce the use of female imprisonment?
There was no mention of any plans in the BBC Scotland report. See this from the Howard Reform Trust, responding to the Scottish government’s well-known plans:
‘The enthusiasm about the proposals for radical change was heartening and we were assured by officials and the minister that there is a firm commitment to see them through. The plan is to restrict the number of beds so that the number of women in prison is significantly reduced. A national facility will be built on the site of the old Cornton Vale prison with only 80 beds and they are currently consulting women about what the prison should look like and provide. That in itself is a pretty revolutionary! This should result in halving the number of women in prison at any one time and providing a much-improved service for those who are detained.’
BBC COMPLAINT: 26.10.18
The report on a single suicide in a Scottish prison, was deeply flawed. Though around 3 minutes in length, the time was given over almost entirely to the parents to express their natural anger at the treatment they believed their daughter had received and there was almost no contextualisation. I understand from teaching journalism students that personalisation helps to engage viewers but that it must be balanced with contextualisation if they are to understand what it means beyond the narrow experiences of those few interviewed. Leaving aside for the moment the perhaps important fact that the case has not yet been confirmed as suicide by a Fatal Accident Inquiry, the report, without any contextual evidence suggested that the problem was systemic. Remember the BBC has a royal charter obliging it to educate, to inform and to entertain. It also makes much of the use of balance in reports. Giving the team at Reporting Scotland the benefit of the doubt, can we discount ‘entertaining?’ What about educating and informing though? What about balancing evidence? The report did not even approach answers to, for example, these obvious questions: 1. How common is suicide by women in Scottish jails? 2. Is it increasing? 3. Is it more or less common than in other countries? 4. Is the imprisonment of women common in Scotland? 5. Does the government already have plans to reduce the imprisonment of women? The answers (references available) are 1: In the last ten years there have been only 3 suicides in Scottish prisons with no more than one in any year and none in seven of them. 2. It is not increasing. 3. The rate of female suicide in English prisons is around 4 times higher. 4. Between 390 and 400 women are in Scottish prisons compared with 7 400 men. 5. The Howard League has praised the Scottish government’s plans to reduce the incarceration of many women and to improve treatment for the others.