Self-harm and suicides are on the rise among prisoners and those under probationary control in England and Wales, according to the latest statistics. On 31 October 2019 the UK Ministry of Justice (MoJ) released its latest data which includes the 12 months leading up to July 2019. INQUEST, which specialises in state related deaths and their investigations, blasted the latest numbers as reflecting "systemic neglect" and "political indifference".
Sharp increase in self-harming and worrying level of deaths in prison
According to INQUEST the MoJ data shows a 22% increase in self-harm incidents from the previous 12 months, reaching a "record high" of 60,594 incidents. There have also been 308 total recorded deaths in prisons in England and Wales, including eight women, in the 12 months leading up to September 2019.
Deborah Coles, executive director of INQUEST, emphasised that:
"These statistics are more than numbers. They represent real people in extreme distress, leading to preventable deaths and traumatic bereavement for families. As a society we should not accept this endless cycle of systemic neglect and political indifference."
Coles criticised the "lack of any oversight body to monitor and follow up on actions taken after prison inspections, investigations and inquests into prison deaths", saying this "reinforced" the gap in accountability rendering past lessons or insights effectively meaningless.
She called the "lack of accountability" for the deaths and failure to prevent their continuation a "moral and political disgrace".
Unfortunately it doesn't stop there.
Deaths on the Rise Among Those on Probation
The data on 'Deaths of Offenders in the Community' also shows an increase of 38% from 374 in 2017/18 to 515 in 2018/19 of deaths among people under probationary supervision outside of prison.
Coles called the sharp increase in deaths "disturbing" and pushed for "urgent scrutiny" given the lack of any independent investigations. Unlike for deaths in custody, there are no independent investigations following the death of someone who is released from prison but remains under probationary supervision.
She said that:
"What is known is that people are being released into failing support systems, poverty and an absence of services for mental health and addictions. This is state abandonment. This is the violence of austerity.”
Ministry of Justice: 'We Know that levels of Violence and Self-Harm in Prisons are Unacceptably High'
I contacted the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) for their response to INQUEST's critiques. An MoJ spokesperson responded with a statement saying:
“We know that levels of violence and self-harm in prisons are unacceptably high, but we remain determined to make progress so that our jails reform offenders, reduce reoffending and keep the public safe.
Our £2.75 billion investment will modernise jails and step up security to stop the flow of drugs and weapons which fuel these issues.
We have also trained over 25,000 staff in suicide and self-harm prevention and introduced the key worker scheme to give each prisoner a dedicated prison officer for support.”
Harsher Penalties for Prisoners and Harsher Methods for Prison Officers
The statement said that, "We are giving prison officers body worn cameras, police-style restraints and PAVA pepper spray to help them do their job more safely".
It also said:
"Our Assaults on Emergency Workers Act means that those who attack prison officers can expect an additional 12 months behind bars. Prisoner punishments through adjudications increased by 6% in the year to June 2019 to ensure that those breaking the rules were disciplined."
Prison Staff Found to Have a "Flippant" Attitude Towards Suicide
It is unclear, however, how or why increasing punitive powers among prison staff and draconian measures towards prisoners could be expected to prevent or reduce self-harming, suicides and other deaths among prisoners. On top of which, in 2017, an Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody (pdf, p5) found prison staff exhibiting a "flippant" attitude towards suicide, including examples of prison officers 'laughing' and 'goading' prisoners to commit suicide, according to INQUEST.
The Advisory Panel also reported that, "Prisoners spoke of a lack of support, empathy and highlighted unmet health, drug and alcohol treatment needs".
Death by 'Natural Causes'
There is also a question regarding how the government classifies the reason behind certain deaths.
Nowhere in the MoJ statement was there any reference to deaths that don't result from suicide - ie as a result of medical neglect, misdiagnosis, or homicide.
According to the MoJ statistics released on 31 October 158 of the 308 deaths were due to "natural causes". But that figure is disputed by INQUEST. According to INQUEST deaths initially recorded by the state as due to "natural causes" in the past have later been discovered, following investigations by INQUEST, the Prison & Probation Ombudsman, or others, to be the result of neglect and poor healthcare provision within the prison system.
In 2018 INQUEST submitted evidence (pdf, p2 - 5) to an inquiry into healthcare in prisons which noted that many deaths labelled as resulting from "natural causes" were in fact examples of people, "dying prematurely and unnecessarily due to inadequate healthcare provision".
Recommendations Consistently Ignored Despite Worsening Conditions for Prisoners
Recommendations by INQUEST include(pdf 4-5):
- Commitment to an immediate reduction in the prison population.
- Halting the prison building programme and redirect resources for investment in welfare, health and social
- Facilitate diversion from the criminal justice system.
- Sentencing policy should be reviewed.
- Build a national oversight mechanism implementing official recommendations.
- Full consideration should be given to prosecutions under the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate
Homicide Act [against officials who fail to prevent deaths], where ongoing failures are identified and the prison service has been forewarned
- Ensure access to justice and learning for bereaved families
It appears that notwithstanding the reports and investigations, little if anything has improved in respect of the treatment and handling of prisoners and those under probationary control.
Bereaved Families Deserve More than Repetitive Platitudes
A member of the communications team at INQUEST informed me that, "we see the same issues and recommendations from inquests, investigations and inquires are made time and time again".
They pointed to comments from the senior coroner for West Yorkshire, who has been making the exact same recommendations for 10 years: that women with mental health problems should be diverted from prison to receive the mental health support that they need. He most recently repeated his recommendations following the inquest into the death of Emily Hartley, who hanged herself in prison in 2018.
Based on the MoJ statement provided to me, none of these recommendations are being taken seriously.
As Coles explained in her statement, "Bereaved families deserve more than repetitive platitudes that ‘lessons will be learned’, when they consistently are not".