There is even a doubt about her name. She was convicted as Sharon Harkins, she appealed against her conviction as Sharon Harkins, but in death she become Sharon Harkin. Of this, however, there is no doubt: when she died of cancer in ward 26 of Stirling Royal Infirmary, she took her last breath handcuffed to a prison guard.
I have been unable to find a precedent. It is possible that Sharon Harkin – I will go with the last version – is the only woman in the history of modern Scotland who has died in hospital in handcuffs. It happened on 11 January 2010, but was not reported at the time. It is only being reported now, and only in this magazine. She was 47 years old and had been an inmate of Cornton Vale women's prison in Stirling for just over four years. She was a lifer serving a minimum of 12 years for murder.
Before her imprisonment Sharon was a familiar figure in a sub-culture of alcoholics and drug abusers who frequented the lanes and underpasses of Glasgow city centre. She was known to the group as Vodka Sharon. She was attracted to younger men and it seems that at least one, James Carslaw, was attracted to her. Another in her circle, a neighbour in a grim block of flats in the Gorbals, was nicknamed Old John. His real name, according to the judicial records, was 'John Diver or Divers'; there was the same curious indifference to identity.
Sharon was platonically fond of Old John, who was no more than 60 years of age. One night she and Carslaw went to his flat for a late-night drinking session. All three eventually collapsed into sleep. Sharon awoke to find Old John making a sexual advance. It was the Crown's case that both the visitors then set about the predator, repeatedly striking him on the head and body before fleeing the scene with some of his possessions. Doctors testified that he may not have died immediately.
A few days later, as the body of John Diver or Divers lay undiscovered in Norfolk Court, Sharon Harkin met another of the group, a heroin addict named Ann O'Brian, in a lane close to Central Station. Ann was looking for drugs, her body was rattling, and she was in no mood to hear Sharon's halting admission that she and Carslaw had gone to Old John's flat, that the night had ended in violence, and that she was afraid to return to his flat. O'Brian told the police that Sharon had 'always been part of the toon centre drinkin' mob, and as such gets into some states.' Sharon allegedly volunteered to Ann O'Brian that 'me and ma boyfriend done John in.'
This confession, noted by a police officer, was essential to the securing of a conviction. In the absence of much else against her apart from the undisputed fact of her presence in Old John's flat, it was evidence that Carslaw had not been the sole assailant; that the pair had acted in concert. But by the time the case came to trial four months later, O'Brian was no longer in a position to repeat the confession to a jury: she was dead. Sharon's defence submitted unsuccessfully that there was no case to answer. Three years later, when the appeal court had a second look, counsel again argued that a confession based on hearsay, from a heroin addict desperate for a fix, should have been inadmissible. The judges disagreed; the conviction stood.
By November 2009, Sharon Harkin was losing weight and, according to her cell-mate, a fellow lifer named Hilda Robertson, was vomiting so persistently that a bucket was put in the cell and the door had to be kept open. It was thought she might be suffering from an abdominal infection. Her condition continued to deteriorate and, in December, she was admitted as an emergency to Stirling Royal Infirmary. She had an advanced tumour which had spread from the colon to the liver, but which had still not been conclusively diagnosed when she died a month later.
Earlier this year, at a fatal accident inquiry into her death, an expert medical witness, Dr Nat Wright, criticised the delay in referring her for a surgical opinion. He agreed that earlier intervention would not have saved her life, but maintained that it might have alleviated the symptoms and spared her physical distress. The inquiry rejected these criticisms and exonerated the prison medical staff. The sheriff, Fiona Tait, did concede, however, that her level of pain was 'arguably greater than that recorded in the medical records' and that she had been 'gravely ill'.
It was this gravely ill woman who continued to be handcuffed in hospital until the moment of her death. The relevant questions are: did she present any danger to herself or to anyone else?; did she present a risk of flight? Considering her terminal condition, who would argue that she did? But there would have been a way of disposing of these questions and, in the light of the answers, judging whether the authorities acted responsibly or lawfully. The questions could have been put to the private security company employed by the Scottish Prison Service. They could have been addressed directly to the guard or guards responsible for handcuffing her.
Neither the company (Reliance) nor its unidentified employee or employees on ward duty on 11 January 2010 was called to give evidence at the fatal accident inquiry. They were simply not cited to attend. As a result, the inquiry was denied any opportunity to examine the person to whom Sharon Harkin was handcuffed when she died or to investigate the company's risk assessment of the patient. More astonishing still, Sheriff Tait did not regard it as her duty to challenge the inexplicable failure to call these witnesses. Instead she was content to declare in her judgement that 'it would be unwise and inappropriate to comment on or make recommendations on such operational matters in the absence of evidence. Accordingly I decline to do so.'
The sheriff should have been aware that the death of Sharon Harkin in handcuffs was more than a mere 'operational matter.' She should have been aware of the near-certainty that the treatment of Sharon Harkin breached the European Convention on Human Rights. She should have been aware, too, of Sir John Mitting's recent judgement on this matter in the High Court in England. Here is his uncompromising conclusion:
There is a point at which a prisoner's risk of escape or of danger to the public were he [sic] to escape must be considered in the light of his medical condition. Where it is impossible for a prisoner to pose any risk due to ill-health or debilitating treatment, handcuffing will breach article 3 because it is inhumane, degrading and disproportionate to the needs of security.
As he wrote that gender-specific passage, perhaps it did not occur to a wise judge that the prisoner might be a woman. Perhaps it would have strained Sir John Mitting's credulity to imagine a case in which a woman who was 'gravely ill' and confined to a hospital bed would be handcuffed at the point of death.
But it happened in Scotland – without so much as a paragraph in a newspaper recording the fact, far less a thorough investigation by a court of law.
If it is true that a society should expect to be judged by the manner in which it treats its prisoners, what does the manner of Sharon Harkin's death say about Scotland? What does the subsequent inquiry say about Scotland? The state has a moral imperative, to say nothing of a formal legal obligation, to account satisfactorily for the death of people in its care or custody. It has failed to do so in this case. It has left important questions unanswered. It has neglected to summon vital witnesses. Did Sharon Harkin count for so little? What does that say about Scotland?
Sharon Harkin: born 8 June 1962; died handcuffed, 8.23am, 11 January 2010
This article was first published in SR in 2013