Shine A Light

Violent and dangerous places: the rise in prison suicides in England and Wales

Cuts, overcrowding and understaffing have created a toxic mix of violence, death and human misery.

Lorraine Atkinson
24 May 2017

HM Prison Aylesbury (Andy Aitchison @prisonimage)

One hundred and six people have died in prison so far in 2017. This includes 28 people who have taken their own lives. Last year was the highest number of self-inflicted deaths since current recording practices began in 1978. 120 people took their own lives in prison in 2016. On average a prisoner died by suicide every three days.

The rise in prison suicides has coincided with cuts to prison staffing and budgets and a rise in the number of people in prison, resulting in overcrowding. Some prisons introduced restricted regimes and many prisoners are spending hours each day locked in their cells with little to occupy them. Overcrowding and understaffing have created a toxic mix of violence, death and human misery in our prisons. Data from the Ministry of Justice reveal high levels of assaults and self-injury. Some prisoners were too frightened to come out of their cells, according to reports from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP).

The Howard League and Centre for Mental Health conducted a two year inquiry on suicides in prisons. We published four reports on suicide prevention in prison and submitted evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights inquiry on mental health and deaths in prison. Our report on preventing prison suicides stated that a prison regime should be built around a normal life, where prisoners are able to get up each day, take a shower and have breakfast and then occupy themselves productively. Prisoners should also be able to exercise daily and go outdoors. Prisons need to become healthier, safer places for all in order to reduce the risk of death.

In 2013 the prisoner incentives and earned privileges (IEP) scheme was revised, resulting in a more punitive regime for many prisoners. HMIP noted, in its report on Wormwood Scrubs prison in 2015, that “the very restricted regime and limited time unlocked rendered much of the [IEP] scheme ineffective as there was too little offered to encourage good behaviour”. 

A prison regime should be built around a normal life, where prisoners are able to get up each day, take a shower and have breakfast and then occupy themselves productively.

On arrival at a prison, a high risk time for suicide, prisoners are placed on “entry level” and are deprived of basic coping mechanisms such as contact with their family or friends, at a time when they most need support. Prisoners who show “insufficient commitment to rehabilitation and purposeful activity” or have behaved badly can be placed on basic level with limited time out of cell and visits and are only allowed £4 a week of their own money to spend on necessities such as food, toiletries or phone calls.

The most challenging prisoners are often the most troubled and the most likely to be placed on basic regime. Prisoners’ poor behaviour can be a sign of their distress but the response from prison staff is often the use of punishment including solitary confinement.

In evidence to the Supreme Court in 2015, the Howard League stated that prisoners in segregation “often tended to be the most disturbed and vulnerable prisoners, characterised by being young, institutionalised, with mental health difficulties or histories or self-harm or attempted suicide”. Segregation has been found to have a serious adverse psychological impact on prisoners and can cause irreversible damage.

The Ministry of Justice does not publish data on the use of solitary confinement. Prisoners can be held under segregation conditions for weeks, months and even years. There are no limits on how long a prisoner can be segregated nor is there any requirement for the prisoner to be informed of how long he or she will remain in segregation. In April this year the Howard League brought a judicial review on behalf of a 16 year old boy who had been held in prolonged solitary confinement in Feltham prison.

Concern about the rise in deaths in our prisons have been raised by members of parliament, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons, the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman and coroners. Numerous recommendations have been made, with the aim of preventing further deaths.

The Harris Review, an inquiry into the self-inflicted deaths of 18 to 24 year olds in prison, was published in July 2015. It called for radical changes and stated “unless progress is made on the proposals that we have made, young people will continue to die unnecessarily in our prisons”. 22 young people aged 18-24 have taken their lives since the report was published less than two years ago.

In the 2016 annual report, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspectorate of Prisons stated that prisons had become “unacceptably violent and dangerous places” and described the picture in respect of self-harm and suicide as “shocking”. It made nine recommendations concerning the care of people in crisis in prison.

The Prisons and Probation Ombudsman investigates every death in prison. In his 2016 annual report, the PPO described “a shocking 34% rise in self-inflicted deaths” and “steadily rising numbers of deaths from natural causes”. He noted that “improving safety and fairness is less about identifying new learning and more about implementing the learning already available”.

In April, the Council of Europe Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) published a report on the UK.

The committee was “deeply concerned” about the high levels of violence in prisons and noted that overcrowding and inadequate regimes were having a negative effect. The Committee stated: “the situation was particularly austere for those juveniles who were placed on ‘separation’ lists (denoted by vivid pink stickers of ‘do not unlock’ on their cell doors), who could spend up to 23.5 hours a day locked up alone in their cells.” The CPT concluded this amounted to inhumane and degrading treatment.

In November 2016 the Ministry of Justice published a White Paper on prison safety and reform.

It recognised the need to improve safety and security in prisons and announced there would be investment in staffing and an increase in the number of prison officers by 2,500 by 2018. It also announced plans to reform the prison estate to make it less crowded.

Increasing staffing levels in prisons should help to prevent suicides. Positive staff/prisoner relationships are crucial in managing suicide risk in prisons. Prison officers need knowledge but also time to identify and support prisoners in crisis. Having a cup of tea and a chat with a prisoner might be the vital intervention that prevents a death.

However urgent action is still needed to reduce the number of people in prison. Statistics published by the Council of Europe show that the prison population rate in England and Wales is 148.3 prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants, higher than the European average of 133.8 and the highest rate in Western Europe. Prison should only ever be used by the courts as a last resort for the most serious offences and when someone poses an immediate risk to public safety. Reducing the number of people in prison will have a far more immediate impact than building new prisons, which takes time and resources and is likely to lead to an increase in the prison population in the long term.

Prisoner safety should be a top priority for the new government following the general election in June. Reforms cannot be delayed or more lives will be needlessly lost; more families and staff will face bereavement.











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