Revealed: the rise in self-harm in Scottish prisons

Cases in which people try to hurt or kill themselves in prison have risen by over a third in the last four years while the overall number of prisoners has fallen, according to data released by the Scottish Prison Service (SPS).

Official reports of actual, attempted and threatened self-harming incidents in 15 Scottish prisons have increased to over 400 a year in the last two years, with sharp rises in the number of incidents involving women, as well as in particular prisons.

Critics warn that there is a self-harm “epidemic” in Scotland’s prisons, and are demanding investment to tackle the problem. This is denied by SPS, however, which says it is getting better at reporting cases.

Figures for recorded incidents of self-harm at 15 prisons across the country have been released to The Ferret by SPS under freedom of information law. The figures include threats to self-harm and suicide attempts, as well as cases in which harm occurred.

Reported incidents involving women in prisons jumped from 69 in 2015-16 to 112 in 2016-17. Barlinnie in Glasgow saw the number of incidents involving men increase from eight in 2012-13 to 42 in 2016-17, while incidents with men and women at Saughton Prison in Edinburgh increased from 34 to 48.

The new Grampian Prison in Peterhead, which took over from old prisons in Aberdeen and Peterhead, reported self-harm incidents for men and women rising from 19 in 2014-15 to 80 in 2016-17. Over the same period incidents involving men at Low Moss Prison in Bishopbriggs increased from five to 23.

In all 15 prisons the total number of self-harm incidents rose from 305 in 2013-14 and 315 in 2014-15, to 429 in 2015-16 and 428 in 2016-17. The average daily prison population has fallen four per cent from 8,014 in 2012-13 to 7,675 in 2015-16.

The Scottish Liberal Democrats, who have previously highlighted self-harm in prisons, argued that prisoners had a right to mental health care. “This epidemic in prison self-harm is evidence that our health care system is not working as it should,” said LibDem MSP, Liam McArthur.

“Substantial reform of prison mental health care is needed, which is why we are calling for a transformative investment in services. It’s high time the Scottish Government took the mental health of every person in Scotland seriously.”

The new figures were “troubling”, according to Lisa Mackenzie, policy adviser with Howard League for Penal Reform in Scotland. “There is much more to be done to care adequately for those suffering from mental ill health,” she said.

“Rates of mental ill health are higher amongst the prison population than the population at large and the experience of imprisonment leads many prisoners to self-harm, or even contemplate suicide.”

Mackenzie pointed out that a Scottish Parliament inquiry in May found that people in Scottish prisons were not receiving the same levels of treatment as the general population. Evidence suggested that around 70 per cent of the prison population suffered from a mental health problem.

She added: “We should be asking ourselves whether prison is the appropriate place for many of those with mental health problems. Scotland’s imprisonment rate is one the highest in western Europe and the Scottish Government has repeatedly stated its desire to reduce the size of the prison population.”


Stephen Rodger (51) was released from Low Moss prison in May 2016, and is receiving treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. He served a three-year sentence for a firearms charge and breach of the peace, but has maintained his innocence and is due in court again on 24 August.

He argued that Low Moss did not have adequate facilities to deal with prisoners suffering from mental health problems. It only had one full time and one part time mental health nurse to deal with up to 780 prisoners and staff psychologists focussed on violence and rehabilitation, he claimed.

People coming into prison “cold turkey” off the street on remand faced major difficulties, Rodger said. “The biggest problem when you come into prison is people with a history of mental health and addiction issues. Outside you might get help but it doesn’t get continued inside.”

Prisoners can be locked up from 9pm until 7am, he said. “So you’ve got all these thoughts running through your head and sometimes you could be locked up with somebody that’s that gone out their face and you can’t have a conversation with them.”

The Ferret reported in July 2014 that Scottish prisons had failed to protect vulnerable prisoners at risk of suicide due to serious breaches of official policy. Failures to follow suicide risk management guidance were factors in the deaths of at least 16 men.

Prison health services were transferred from SPS to the NHS in 2011. But a report by the Royal College of Nurses (RCN) in November 2016 highlighted the difficulties and challenges of the hand-over.

Though there had been some improvements, there was “too little evidence” that the health gap between prisoners and the wider population had been closed, argued RCN Scotland director, Theresa Fyffe.

“People in prison have complex needs, including mental health issues and addictions, and with an ageing population, the complexity of needs of those in prison is likely to increase further,” she said.

Changes meant that nurses working in prisons should be able to help assess those at risk of self-harm and support them. Fyffe added. “The health and the health care of people in prison should be at the forefront of open political debate.”

SPS’s corporate communications manager, Lyndsey Moug, warned that self-harm figures could be misinterpreted because they include threats as well as actual incidents. “There is no self-harm epidemic in Scotland’s prisons,” she said.

“Reporting processes have also improved in recent years and we are more rigorous in collating information than previously which may lead to an erroneous belief that the numbers of those self-harming has dramatically increased.”

She added: “This is not the case and we continue to encourage those with thoughts of self-harm to speak to us so we can provide appropriate support. SPS takes all instances of self-harm very seriously and is constantly reviewing processes to ensure those at risk of such are identified and supported effectively.”

The Scottish Government urged anyone with thoughts of self-harm or suicide to speak to SPS to get “appropriate support”.

Rising reports of self-harm in Scottish prisons

YearAverage daily prison populationMen self-harming incidentsWomen self-harming incidentsTotal self-harming incidents
Source: Scottish Prison Service

Reports of self-harming by prison

PrisonSelf-harming incidents 2012-17
Cornton Vale235
Grampian (including Aberdeen and Peterhead)225
Low Moss53
Open Estate3
Source: Scottish Prison Service

Self-harm figures from the Scottish Prison Service in full

Cover image thanks to Chris Upson, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Lisa Mackenzie, policy adviser with Howard League for Penal Reform in Scotland, is also a member of The Ferret’s complaints panel

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Hi! To read more you need to login.
Not a member yet? Join our co-operative now to get unlimited access.
You can join using Direct Debit, payment card or Paypal. Cancel at any time. If you are on a low-income you may be eligible for a free sponsored membership. Having trouble logging in? Try here.
Hi! To read more you need to login.
Not a member yet?
Hi! You can login using the form below.
Not registered yet?
Having trouble logging in? Try here.
Back our next investigation
Can you help us find out who really runs Scotland?