Shine A Light

Deaths more likely in bigger and overcrowded prisons

Howard League analysis shows just how harmful supersizing and overcrowding can be

Frances Crook
7 February 2012

One of our sad duties is to monitor the deaths of people in custody, and I am reminded of this today as I attend a meeting of the Ministerial Board on deaths in custody. When I took over as director some twenty years ago we highlighted the deaths of young people who were taking their lives in prison, and our action prompted an inquiry by the chief inspector of prisons which in turn led to promising changes to the care of vulnerable people in prison. More than 15 years ago we helped to found the Ministerial Board and we continue to campaign for safer and more supportive conditions for adults and children in prison.

Today we are publishing an analysis of the deaths in custody over the last year.

The death of any man, woman or child in prison is tragic for the individual and their family and the circumstances are unique. The families of those who die not only grieve for their loved ones, but must also negotiate the complicated investigations and inquests which follow a death in custody. All deaths are investigated by the independent ombudsman, but this can take years, whilst in the meantime worrying patterns can emerge which are left unchecked.

193 people died in custody during 2011. Whilst the number of deaths per 100,000 of the population has reduced since its crisis point in 2004 (where over 200 people died and there were 11,000 fewer people in prison than today), there are worrying trends about when and where these deaths take place.

The largest prisons in the country had a disproportionately high number of deaths. 82 men lost their lives in the 25 largest prisons in the country last year (nine men in Manchester alone); these super-size prisons hold a third of the total prison population and yet 43 per cent of deaths took place within their walls.

It will come as no surprise that overcrowded prisons also had more than their fair share of tragedy. They too had a disproportionate number of deaths across the board, with the 25 most overcrowded prisons accounting for 54 deaths, of whom 26 were suicides. We’ve always known that overcrowded conditions are dangerous, but these figures highlight just how damaging they can be.

Considerable effort has gone into suicide prevention in the last decade and the authorities are well aware that those on remand or who are awaiting sentence are at particular risk. However, our analysis shows that there appears to be a greater risk of death through natural causes for this group as well. 15 per cent of the prison population are on remand or are awaiting sentence, yet over a third of people who died in prison were in this category. This startling fact only goes to prove what the authorities already know, that those entering prison are not just at risk of self-harm and suicide, but may be extremely unwell and vulnerable after a lifetime (however short) of drug or alcohol abuse, precarious housing, poor diet and chaotic lifestyles with high levels of stress. When in the care of the state these people need to be kept safely and securely and given the support they need to get well – not shoved into overcrowded warehouses holding well over a thousand men. The real tragedy is that it may be the only time the state invests real money in them, when they are in prison and dying.

In accordance with their size and population (i.e. often large with a significant remand population) local prisons had a particularly high number of deaths. Men and women in local prisons make up just over a third of the prison population, yet half of all deaths occurred within them.  Considering that every male local prison in the country is overcrowded, the risk that their vulnerable and sick inhabitants may not get the care they need is significant.

Another point to note is the increased use of ‘unclassified deaths’ as a sleight of hand to mask the number of natural deaths, homicides or suicides in prison. Following pressure from the Howard League for Penal Reform at the beginning of last year, the Ministry of Justice addressed the backlog of unclassified deaths for 2010 (there are still seven outstanding). However, the deaths of 20 people during 2011 are still to be investigated and we are urge them again to establish how these men and women died so lessons can be learnt and families can begin to move on.  I was given to understand that some people were dying from cocktails of prescription drugs given to them in the prison and illicit drugs obtained within the jail.

The number of older people in prison is rising, but men and women are dying in prison of all ages. Seven young people committed suicide in 2011, one as young as 19. Two thirds of people who died were under the age of 60.

NHS healthcare workers in prison are doing incredible work in extremely difficult circumstances. Whilst facing budget cuts they must treat a client group with significant risks of drug and alcohol abuse and its associated diseases – and this is before you consider their risk of mental health problems.

Officers on the wing are overstretched, trying to monitor those at risk of self-harm and suicide at a time when prisons are bursting at the seams.

Prisons have always been the dumping ground for the failures of social policy.  The thousands of men and women who enter prison each year are already at significant risk of poor health, physically and mentally. They are unlikely to have a GP, or to have sought treatment on the outside. Once they enter the criminal justice system, they are shuttled into overcrowded and increasingly super-sized prisons whose facilities are being cut to the bone.

A total of 1,788 men, women and children have died in prisons in England and Wales in the last ten years.

757 men, women and children have taken their own lives in prisons in the last ten year.

It makes me sick, physically ill, when people tell me that prison is a soft option.


This piece is republished with thanks from Frances Crook's blog, where the tabulated statistics can be found.


Equalities Annual Report 2010/11 (2011) National Offender Management Service, London. HM Prison Service. 

Offender Management Statistics Quarterly, April – June 2011 (2011) National Offender Management Service, London.

Population Bulletins – Monthly (January – December 2011), National Offender Management Service, London.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData