The Scottish Prison Service's use of 'passed away' to record the death of Katie Allan, 21, in Polmont prison is grotesque. If the euphemism is of any service at all, it might have been excusable if Ms Allan had died peacefully at home, surrounded by the people who loved her. Instead, a lonely, tortured soul, she killed herself in a cell – by what means has not been divulged. According to her friends, she was bullied to death.
In August last year, she downed four pints in a pub and then made the fatal mistake of driving. She knocked down a 15-year-old boy who was out jogging, failed to stop, and was charged with causing serious injury to the victim and driving while unfit. Easily traced, she showed immediate remorse and wrote a letter of apology to the boy, who suffered a broken ankle and a damaged eye socket and was off school for a couple of weeks.
Ms Allan was a student of geography at a Glasgow university, financed herself through part-time work as a chef, and hoped to become a teacher. By all accounts she was a good person. As her solicitor put it in court: 'It was one night and one stupid, impulsive decision which will stay with her for the rest of her life.'
The rest of her life didn't amount to much. Sentenced in early March to 16 months' imprisonment by Sheriff David Pender, she was initially placed in a young offenders' institution before being transferred to an adult prison as soon as she turned 21. The 'rest of her life' – from the day of sentencing to the day of her death – amounted to almost exactly three months.
What was Katie Allan doing in prison? The sheriff's statement that there was no other appropriate sanction is surely mistaken (tragically so in the light of what has now happened). For an offender of previously impeccable character, there were alternatives. A community service order with a long period of supervision would have enabled her to resume her studies, contribute to society, and rebuild her life. If, however, the court felt that custody was inescapable, a shorter sentence might have enabled her to complete the custodial part of it in a young offenders' institution and avoid the abrupt transfer to an adult prison.
Ms Allan is one of the youngest people to die in a Scottish prison in the present decade and the second youngest woman. The youngest was Dionee Kayleigh Kennedy, who killed herself in Cornton Vale prison in February 2014 at the age of 19. But the bad old days were hopefully assumed to be over when the justice secretary, Michael Matheson, introduced a move to smaller units for women prisoners.
In line with Mr Matheson's thinking, the unit at Polmont where Katie Allan died has only 66 inmates. Yet, even with so small a number to care for, it appears to have been beyond the ability of the staff to protect a traumatised young woman from severe bullying. It has not taken long for a supposedly therapeutic regime to break down.
For that reason among others, it is important that the facts of this case are known and understood. All the principal characters – the sentencing sheriff, the justice secretary, the Scottish Prison Service, the governor of Polmont prison and the editor of Ms Allan's local newspaper which reported with lip-smacking satisfaction that she had been 'caged' – may have something to learn from the needless waste of a promising young life.
Nevertheless, you can be sure that the ventilation of awkward truths will be postponed as long as possible. There is a legal obligation to hold a fatal accident inquiry in cases of deaths in custody, but there is no obligation to hold it within a reasonable timescale. There has been no FAI into 24 prison deaths last year. There has been no FAI into 18 prison deaths in 2016. There has been no FAI into six prison deaths in 2015. And, quite intolerably, there has been no FAI into six prison deaths as long ago as 2014. Total number of deaths in custody in Scotland, 2014-17, in which the cause of death is still to be determined: 54.
Every one of these is a story that needs to be told, a life that needs to be accounted for, a family whose suffering needs to end. The disgraceful catalogue of delays reflects very poorly on the lord advocate, James Wolffe, and the lack of political accountability or vigilance is equally disturbing.
When Dionee Kayleigh Kennedy committed suicide four years and four months ago, so long ago that Alex Salmond was still first minister, a spokesman for the Scottish Prison Service issued a public statement that a fatal accident inquiry would be held 'in due course.' We are still waiting. In Scotland, the concept of 'due course' appears to be elastic.
In the case of Katie Allan, it may prove to be more elastic still. Her suicide poses several difficult and urgent questions, yet by the time our flawed judicial system finally stirs itself into some examination of her death, memories will have faded and the extremely limited public interest in the case will have long evaporated. How convenient for all concerned.