Prison deaths are on track to hit their highest level in the last decade in 2020 partly due to the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a prison watchdog which also reported that the average age of death was mid-50s compared to over 80 years as in the average population. A new study by the Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody (IAP) and the Royal College of Nursing, revealed that there was a total number of 165 natural deaths in custody in the year leading up to June 2019 compared to 103 in 2009. Ann Norman, RCN lead for criminal justice, said that this growing number had now reached an ‘unacceptably high level’.
The report puts forward 15 recommendations to reduce the number of natural deaths in prisons, including the creation of a national watchdog to monitor deaths in custody, and the implementation of a standardised care system across the prison estate. The panel also suggests that women and black and minority ethnic (BAME) prisoners face unique challenges, and that specific consideration should be given to the natural deaths occurring within these groups. The full report can be viewed here.
The IAP has called upon justice and health ministers to take action to prevent a further rise of natural deaths in custody. In a letter addressed to Home Office ministers Lucy Frazer QC and Nadine Dorries, the panel states that ‘the average age of someone dying in custody is just 56 years-old, a significant contrast to almost 81 in the general population. Prisoners are dying earlier in the care of the state than they would in the community, with the quality of care received in prison closely dependent on age and sentence length.’
‘We are seeing a growing number of natural deaths in custody and this has now reached an unacceptably high level,’ commented the RCN’s Ann Norman. ‘These deaths may be prevented if there is adequate care, particularly for those prisoners with long-term chronic conditions. The Government must act now to make sure that prisoners’ health is properly managed, as it would be in the community.’
HM Prison and Probation Service defines a ‘natural’ death as ‘any death of a person as a result of a naturally occurring disease process’. Investigations by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman and Coroners have however shown that some of these deaths, while classed as naturally occurring, could have been prevented.
The report comes as fears of a ‘second wave’ of COVID-19 emerge, with the ‘R’ number increased from 1 to 1.2 for the first time since March. It notes that the number of natural deaths in prison for the 2020 calendar year is likely to exceed 165, in part due to the issues presented by COVID-19. Strong concerns have been raised around the ability of HMPPS to cope effectively with the impact of the pandemic on the prison estate, with a recent report published by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons Peter Clarke shedding light on ‘degrading’ conditions faced by those held in custody.