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Why are so many people dying on probation in England and Wales?

Flawed ‘reforms’ and part-privatisation have created havoc in the probation service. Amid the chaos: a sharp rise in self-inflicted deaths.

Former justice secretary Chris Grayling giving speech in front of poster which says, securing a better future Chris Grayling spearheaded probation reforms in his role as justice secretary between 2012 and 2015. Image: Joe Giddens/PA Archive/PA Images

When a person dies in prison their death is investigated and an inquest is held. 

Last year 276 people died in prisons across England and Wales. Many of these deaths will have been subject to independent scrutiny. Post death investigations are important for many reasons, not least because they provide an opportunity to prevent future deaths. 

But what happens when a person dies after leaving prison, while they are in the community and still in the care of probation services?  

We don’t know. At present there is no investigative body routinely scrutinising these deaths. That said, the numbers of people dying post-release and even how they die, isn’t a secret. 

Between 2010/11 and 2016/17, 1,378 people died while on probation, supervised either within the public sector, by the National Probation Service, or by commercial companies, known as Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs).

Last year 372 people died while on probation. The comparable figure in 2010 was 110. Improvements to recording practices could explain part of the rise, but not all. And these figures don’t show the complete picture. Two community rehabilitation companies have yet to release their figures. 

The Ministry of Justice’s annual bulletin reveals that the rise in post-release deaths far outstrips probation caseloads.

A significant number of these deaths are self-inflicted. The number of self-inflicted deaths among people on probation rose by 488 per cent (from 24 to 117) between 2010/11 and 2016/17. During this same period caseloads increased by 90 per cent (from 37,000 to 70,000).

That so many people are taking their lives while in the care of probation services should cause alarm. But even as wider probation reforms are under attack, these startling figures barely register. 

The number of self-inflicted deaths occurring during post-release supervision rose by 488 per cent

We know that in the first three months of 2017 at least 90 people died on probation. That’s roughly one person every day.

The Ministry of Justice released these figures to us in response to an FOI request. They released a list of names of people who died, their gender, date and cause of death. We know which probation provider was supervising them when they died.

In the data we received, 40 per cent were recorded as natural causes, 29 per cent self-inflicted, six per cent homicide, four per cent accidental. The remaining 21 per cent were ‘unclassified’, meaning that the cause of death is yet to be established. 

This loss of life has occurred in the context of widely-criticised reforms to the probation services implemented by former Justice Secretary Chris Grayling. It raises questions about the adequacy of support before and after release from custody. 

Transforming Rehabilitation: a silent killer?

Last month MPs on the House of Commons Justice Committee delivered a scathing report on the reforms. They said the probation service was “a mess” and they were unconvinced the reforms would ever deliver “the kind of probations service we need”.

The reforms included the contracting out of routine probation services to Community Rehabilitation Companies.

These are partnerships led by companies including Sodexo, a French outsourcing giant with €21 billion of revenue, and UK-based Interserve, whose specialities include construction, cleaning and catering. 

High risk probation cases stayed with the public sector, managed by the National Probation Service.

As justice minister Chris Grayling made prison harsher and dismissed his critics.

The MPs identified problems including: poor provider performance, contractual issues, a two-tier system between the National Probation Service and Community Rehabilitation Companies, and low staff morale.

They said ‘through the gate’ support, help given to people when they leave prison, was inadequate. They found that there was no confidence in community alternatives to custody. 

But attention has mainly focused on operational and contractual matters. 

Absent from the debate is the human cost and how these failures may have directly impacted people on probation. The deaths discussed in this article provides a chilling example of this point.

Institutional indifference

How is it that so many people are taking their own lives while in the care of probation services? Why does no-one seem to care? 

The Ministry of Justice and service providers must be aware that high numbers of people are dying while under their supervision. Parliamentary committees, the Chief Inspector of Probation, and the Prisons & Probation Ombudsman should be scrutinising these deaths. They must hold the agencies responsible to account. This is institutional indifference on a grand scale.

Probation services are incentivised to manage risk of offending rather than more meaningful outcomes such as wellbeing, housing or health. One principal behind ‘Transforming Rehabilitation’ was payment by results linked to reducing ‘reoffending’. On these terms, ‘success’ is defined as less reoffending rather than the safety and care of people leaving prison.

In the chaos wrought by ‘Transforming Rehabilitation’, one can only speculate about the role that probation reforms have played in premature and unnecessary death. While correlation does not imply causation, it isn’t far-fetched to assume that it will likely be the people on probation that are hit hardest when services deteriorate. 

Who has died, how they died, and whether probation reforms played a part in these deaths 

The justice committee’s report focused on shortcomings in contracts and delivery models. There was no mention of the reality of a punitive and uncaring criminal justice system that does little to tackle underlying individual, social and economic problems.

The committee has recommended that the Ministry of Justice conducts a review of the entire probation system. The government should start by investigating the deaths of people who die on probation. Who has died, how they died, and the potential role that ‘Transforming Rehabilitation’ played in these deaths. 

If ‘Transforming Rehabilitation’ has impacted negatively in this way, and contributed to untimely and preventable deaths, what is going to be done about it? 

What is clear is that probation is not just in a ‘mess’. It is a catastrophic failure. People inside and outside of prison need better support and care. Government must work to end the culture of complacency, establish the reasons behind the staggeringly high number of deaths and introduce policies to protect the lives of people using their services.


Edited by Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi, Clare Sambrook & Annissa Warsame for Shine A Light.

About the author

Rebecca Roberts is Head of Policy at the charity INQUEST.

INQUEST is the only charity providing expertise on state-related deaths and their investigation, with a focus on deaths in prison and other forms of detention, and mental health settings, as well as deaths where wider issues of state and corporate accountability are in question, such as Hillsborough and Grenfell Tower.


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