Katie Allan was only 20 when she was locked up. Three months later she was dead. Her parents believe the Scottish Prison Service failed her and needs radical change
Katie Allan had her period the day she was sent to prison.
The 20-year-old from East Renfrewshire was sentenced to 16 months in Polmont, near Falkirk, in March 2018 for a drink-driving offence in which a teenage boy had been injured. His parents wrote to the sheriff urging a non-custodial option, and Katie’s family had been assured by their lawyer that the chances of their daughter, a first-time offender studying geography at the University of Glasgow, being sent to prison were “next to nothing”.
“I’ll never forget,” says her mother, Linda, in the kitchen of the home where she and her husband, Stuart, brought up their daughter, a perfectionist student and Guide leader, along with her younger brother, Scott. “She turned in the dock as she was getting handcuffed and said: ‘Help me, Mum’ – then she got dragged away.
“We came back here and we were in shock.” The pitch of her voice rises sharply, and there is a shadow of the panic that must have gripped her then. “You know nothing! We didn’t know where she was. We didn’t know who to contact. We were petrified for her. She didn’t have pyjamas or underwear. She had her period and didn’t have sanitary towels.”
Completely unfamiliar with prison protocols, Katie had no clue how to access sanitary supplies, or even make a phone call to her frantic parents. Linda heard that a fellow inmate eventually loaned her some essentials.
Since her daughter’s suicide in June 2018, three months on from that day, Linda and Stuart have had many moments to reflect on the petty humiliations, relentless bullying, inadequate mental health provision and broader system failure that they believe led directly to their child’s death. But it is this first, brutal introduction to the power plays of prison life that sticks with her mother.
The last time Linda saw Katie alive, she was scarcely recognisable. Her hair was falling out in clumps from alopecia; there were angry red patches of eczema on her arms and dark circles under her eyes.
Although preparations were under way for her release with an electronic tag, Katie, who had just turned 21, was in extreme distress. The bullying she was experiencing from other inmates had reached an intolerable level, with shouted threats of violence and recrimination for imagined slights keeping her awake.
“She was exhausted,” says Linda. “Then she got upset, which she’d never done in the visitors’ hall before.” Usually Katie would maintain a cheerful front at visits, both for her family’s sake and her own, not wanting to give her tormentors more ammunition. Linda told her about the cushions she had bought for Katie’s flat, readying the place for her return.
“She was so upset that I couldn’t do what she always said, which was not to speak to a prison officer about it.” That officer promised to convey the message to staff on Katie’s hall, “and she did what she said she would”, adds Linda, who has absolute recall of the smallest acts of kindness towards her daughter. “She did report it to two other officers, who spoke to Katie and said: ‘Everything’s going to be all right,’ and that they might move her in the morning.” Her tone shifts now, turning brittle. “Then they locked her up.”
Katie’s body was found in her cell the next day.
There are all these buzzwords about rehabilitation, but there’s no way the prison Katie was in rehabilitates anyone
Everything that Linda and her husband have done since then, they explain, is about making sense of that catastrophic loss. It is an endeavour that has expanded well beyond their own grief and led them to expose, through painstaking research, failings not only in how the state cares for some of its most vulnerable citizens, but also in Scotland’s peculiar system of fatal accident inquiries (FAI), which are mandatory whenever anyone dies in custody. The Allans say their evidence proves these inquiries, the rough equivalent of an English inquest, are manifestly incapable of holding the prison service to account for Scotland’s shocking rates of death in custody, particularly among younger inmates.
At the end of November, a review recommended that every death in prison custody should have an independent investigation completed within months of its occurrence. It’s an incremental victory of sorts for the Allans, whose most recent analysis revealed that 40% of prisoner deaths in Scotland over the past decade were suicides, with nearly half of those under the age of 30. But Linda remains sceptical of additional well-meant recommendations without the power to implement them.
Accepting the recommendations of the FAI review in principle on 30 November, Scotland’s justice secretary, Keith Brown, acknowledged that “systemic and operational” changes were needed but insisted some progress has been made.
A spokesperson for the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) has said: “We recognise the profound emotional distress experienced by families when a loved one dies in custody and anything that can be done to provide information and engage with families is to be welcomed.” A Scottish government spokesperson also commented, saying: “We remain committed to making improvements to the response to, and experiences of, families impacted by a death in prison custody.”
“We were quite ashamed,” admits Linda, “because we just had no idea about what was going on in prisons. It does not make logical sense to us that there’s all these buzzwords about rehabilitation, but there’s no way on God’s earth that the prison Katie was in rehabilitates anyone.”
Scotland’s custody record offers much to be ashamed of, with an incarceration rate marginally higher than that of England and Wales and substantially higher than comparable EU countries, despite the SNP government’s attempts to minimise short-term custody and promote community-based rehabilitation. One-third of inmates are aged 30 or under, and there is a higher prison suicide rate than in England.
Katie probably stuck out like a sore thumb in prison, and there was a lot of bullying
Nascent Scottish government reforms, especially regarding female prisoners and young offenders, were stalled by the pandemic and, just prior to it, Europe’s anti-torture watchdog described conditions in Scotland’s overcrowded prisons as being at emergency level. The damning report highlighted a rise in drug-related violence, poor mental health provision and inmates confined to their cells for lengthy periods of time, sometimes in less than 9 sq metres of living space. This was the crumbling system that Katie was subsumed by in the spring of 2018.
Linda and Stuart are forthright in acknowledging their daughter’s guilt – according to press reports at the time, from the moment of her arrest Katie was full of remorse and concern for the boy she had knocked down – as well as her privilege: “There were no ACEs [adverse childhood experiences] in her background.” But they remain baffled that “one wrong decision”, compounded by a series of institutional failings, resulted in the death of their “kind-hearted, perfectionist” daughter. The hardest thing to accept, they say, is that Katie was let down by those who were ultimately responsible for her care.
At the time of the crash, Katie was working at a local cafe to subsidise her university bills. At a night out for a colleague’s birthday, she drank cider and was over the limit according to a subsequent test. Driving back through the Glasgow suburb of Giffnock, Katie clipped her wheel on a traffic island. The tyre blew and she lost control of the car, mounting the pavement and hitting a 15-year-old boy who was out running, leaving him unconscious with a broken ankle and fractured eye socket.
Katie stopped further up the road to change the tyre and has always maintained she had no idea she had hit anyone. A charge of fleeing the scene of an accident was quickly dropped. “Katie was absolutely devastated [when she realised she’d hurt someone],” says Linda. “There’s no way that she was lying to me.”
Katie’s experience of prison was gruelling from the start. Stuart is frank: “Katie was not your normal prisoner and probably stuck out like a sore thumb, and there was a lot of bullying.” In addition, there were regular “humiliating” strip searches and constant difficulties accessing basic support, which too often proved inadequate. But the Allans believe that repeated warnings about Katie’s vulnerability went unheeded.
“The biggest issue in prisons is in the halls. It is not in the lovely new education suite where the drama groups go, or the therapy pets; it’s about what goes on there and the institutional staff behaviour …” Linda groans, recalling how her mother, a wheelchair user, was forced to stand up so the receptionist could check her passport photograph over the high desk; and how one officer casually responded: “We can’t guarantee your daughter won’t get battered”, when she said she was worried about Katie’s ability to cope; and how Katie had been told to get rid of half her books after the university sent in her academic texts so that she could continue her studies. “All these wee power struggles. It’s that helplessness you feel, not wanting to make a fuss because you’re frightened of the repercussions on your loved one.”
Immediately following Katie’s death, and for some time after, “we were on our knees”, says Linda. But there was also a clarity: “From day one, we had made our mind up that this was a crime that had been committed.”
The family are still appealing the decision by Scotland’s crown office not to prosecute the SPS under the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 over Katie’s death. An FAI cannot be held until this appeal is decided.
The Allans are a good team: Linda has a background in healthcare, while Stuart works with data and trends. Through months of work analysing death certificates and FAI reports, their most recent study of almost 200 inquiries into deaths in custody found the sheriff made no recommendation to improve practice in 90% of cases, while FAIs often took three or four years to complete. They discovered that no death of a woman in custody in Scotland has ever resulted in a finding of problems, despite recent critiques from human rights bodies about the care of female inmates.
“In trying to find out what happened to their daughter, Linda and Stuart have discovered and exposed deep flaws in how the state manages its duty of care for the life and wellbeing of those in their custody,” says Sarah Armstrong, professor of criminology at the University of Glasgow, who worked with the Allans as equals in a research team to produce this latest report. “They have forced the government to do what it should have all along by taking seriously the levels of death and the quality of care given to people in custody.”
Their solicitor, Aamer Anwar, is likewise convinced of the couple’s impact on the prisons debate in Scotland. “Katie wasn’t a rich, famous or powerful woman, but what she has are two stubborn parents who have refused to be silenced, lied to or patronised by a prison service used to a culture of denial. They carry a moral authority that terrifies the prison service.”
But for Linda and Stuart, the measure remains in the things undone. A review of mental health services for young people in custody was carried out later in 2019, prompted by Katie’s death and that of 16-year-old William Lindsay, a boy from a very different background to Katie, who killed himself on remand in the same prison four months later, despite his significant vulnerabilities being flagged to staff. The Allans, who remain in touch with William’s mother, are particularly frustrated at the lack of progress since this review.
Meanwhile, they have applied for a grant to undertake further research. “We’ve always said we don’t want this to define the rest of our life, especially for Scott. We have lots of difficult conversations and everything we do is a decision between the three of us.”
Katie and Scott were “incredibly close”, say their parents, and as the younger sibling headed to university himself this autumn, “he’s missed his sister more now than ever, because the person who’d be helping him make this transition was his sister. She was a bossy-boots, so she would have been sorting out the cooking rota with his flatmates.”
The drive to keep asking questions is simple enough, they say. “We hear it a lot from people who have lost children. We had to make some sense of Katie’s death because it was completely senseless.”
In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org