Anti-torture committee warns of ‘excessive force’ used on Scottish prisoners

A European anti-torture committee has raised ongoing concerns about the use of segregation and “excessive force” to control Scottish prisoners in a “damning” new report.

The “troubling findings” include allegations from a women with borderline personality disorder, who was left with a black eye after one incident and a suspected broken elbow in another.

The Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT)’s report, based on visits to Shotts and Cornton Vale prisons in October 2019, is a follow-up to a report the previous year.

It highlights 27 cases in which force was used on women – aimed at keeping them safe – following incidents of self-harm or suicide attempts. It also describes the segregation of some women in HMP Cornton Vale as “akin to solitary confinement” and “verging on institutional neglect” .

Raising alarm

In 2018 the CPT raised alarm about the number of women in Cornton Vale with severe mental illness  “requiring hospital treatment, care and support”.

Its previous report found that one prisoner in Cornton Vale had bitten her arm through skin and muscle to the bone. Another set fire to her hair, and a third was sitting in isolation in a cell smeared with blood and faeces.

Following this visit, a variety of concerns were raised around the use of segregation, which sometimes occurred for “years on end”.

The CPT’s latest report, published on 8 October, highlighted the case of one man at Shotts prison – referred to as Mr A – who had spent 10 years more or less continually in “a carousel” of segregation around the prison estate.

In Cornton Vale it found “a mixed picture”. The prison, which is due to be replaced – now in April 2022 – last week housed only 84 women with the majority held at Polmont after a relocation in 2017. It is understood that the most vulnerable are at Cornton Vale.

While “the vast majority” of women prisoners there said that prison staff treated them well, the CPT’s delegation received two separate allegations of ill-treatment and excessive force by prison officers and escort staff respectively.

A women referred to as Ms B claimed that on 24 October 2018, during her transfer to Cornton Vale, G4S escort staff allegedly used excessive force against her. This resulted in a black eye and bruises on her left upper thigh and left elbow.

Her prison admission medical screening examination states: “Possible un-displaced radial head fracture and joint effusion of left elbow, sustained during transport”.

Excess force

Ms B also made a second allegation that when being taken to a Cornton Vale segregation unit on 25 August 2019, six prison officers (five female and one male), had used excessive force, applying thumb-and-wrist locks to force her to change into “suicide safe clothing” (which has no ligatures). Her medical records detail a “suspected broken elbow during restraint” though an x-ray later confirmed it was only injured.

Other concerns raised in the report include the structural issues with rising numbers, leading to overcrowding, which the CPT said is not a “viable” situation. Last month The Ferret reported on concerns on the growing number of prisoners held on remand.

CTP committee member Julia Kozma said the response by Scottish authorities to issues picked up in 2018  “lacked clarity”.

“These issues mainly concerned the problem of overcrowding in Scottish prisons, long-term segregation of prisoners, and the treatment of women in prison, particularly those suffering from mental health problems,” she said.

Kozma claimed long-term segregation was “a very serious issue” used in Scotland for lengthy periods, in a way “we would not find elsewhere”.

While a working group had been formed following the previous year’s report, the Scottish Prison Service could provide no information or findings on its progress during the CPT visit. “I believe that much more urgency should be given to this matter,” Kozma stressed.

The committee, she said, was “encouraged” by plans in progress for a replacement women’s prison that recognised the trauma many women prisoners had faced. But she insisted work on improving policies should begin now.

Both women lived in conditions akin to solitary confinement with little to no meaningful human contact. In the CPT’s view, this lack of human contact and the disengagement by the SRU staff towards them verged on institutional neglect.

CPT report

According to the report more than 100 incidents reported at Cornton Vale between October 18 and 19 involved control and restraint measures, including the use of wrist and thumb-locks. In around a quarter of cases prisoners had been aggressive to staff. In other instances, prisoners refused to move to segregation cells or to wear suicide-safe clothing.

In 27 control and restraint cases it is explicitly stated that the refusal to comply with orders had happened after acts of self-harm or suicide attempts.

The report notes: “It is clear that forced removals to safer cells and the force used to get the women into suicide-proof clothing is not the best or most appropriate response to their mental health state.”

The CTP also raised ongoing concerns about the conditions for women in segregation, which were “akin to solitary confinement”. Prisoners were reportedly offered one hour of exercise alone in a caged yard and 15 minutes on the phone.

“As neither woman wanted to exercise alone in the stark yards, the women were locked alone in their cells for 23.5 to 24 hours each day,” said the report.

“The women also ate alone in their cells, where their food was given to them through the door. The only regular inter-prisoner communication…was to shout through the walls to each other.”

In the UK and Scottish Government responses it says reintegration plans will now be introduced.

Being forced into prison ‘safer clothing’ is itself demeaning and dehumanising, and someone considered to be in such a distressed state should be approached in as a compassionate and trauma informed way as possible.

Professor Sarah Armstrong

Sarah Armstrong, professor of criminology at Glasgow University, said the CPT findings chimed with her own research: Safer cells can heighten a sense of despair and prisoners should be offered greater social contact with loved ones as an alternative to these,” she said.

“Being forced into prison ‘safer clothing’ is itself demeaning and dehumanising, and someone considered to be in such a distressed state should be approached in as a compassionate and trauma informed way as possible. The use of ‘wrist and thumb lock’ holds does not strike me as compassionate and trauma informed.”

Others described the report as “damning”. Emma Jardine, policy advisor for Howard League Scotland, said: “The first visit found women being kept in prison who were so severely mentally ill that they had bitten their arms to the bone and had repeatedly set their own hair on fire. ‘Jam tomorrow’ in terms of the new women’s estate is simply not good enough.”

Leaving people in solitary confinement for years, she claimed, was “illegal” and “immoral”.

Anne Pinkman, who founded the Scottish Working Group on Women’s Offending (SWGWO) said: “It is critical that we hear what the prison service response is and what it has done in terms of improving conditions for vulnerable women detained, particularly because of the further delay caused by the pandemic to the building of the new unit.”

Detailed response

The Scottish Government has published a detailed response, in line with its commitments under the Convention for the Prevention of Torture.

“Many of the women held in custody have complex needs and our frontline prison officers and NHS staff work hard every day to support them, including those who use challenging behaviours as a means to communicate their distress”, a spokesperson said.

“We have set bold and progressive plans for a new female custodial estate for Scotland and work is underway to deliver a smaller national prison and the first of two local Community Custodial Units in Dundee and Glasgow by 2022. The national prison will manage women with the most complex needs.”

In response to allegations of excess force, a G4S spokesperson said: “Our work with the Scottish Court Custody and Prisoner Escorting Service (SCCPES) was monitored rigorously and we have found no records or evidence of any breach of the legal requirements relating to use of force.”

“We have no record of receiving a complaint in regard to this case.”

Its contract with the SCCPES ended in January 2019.

Image thanks to Istock/Jean-Francois Bergeron

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