A sharp increase in suicides in prisons across England and Wales has been reported with five over the a 6 day period last week, raising fears that the restrictions in response to the coronavirus pandemic are having a detrimental effect inmates’ mental health.
There have been 16 reported self-inflicted deaths since restrictions were put in place on 23rd March, and while this is not the highest reported in this time-frame, deaths recently accelerated with five last week (as reported by the Guardian). This suggests that measures are fast increasingly taking their toll. Prisoners are longer confined to cells, reducing interaction and cannot have visits from family and friends.
Chief Inspector Peter Clarke published a report recently stating that in some cases: ‘The vast majority [of inmates] were locked up for nearly the whole day with usually no more than half an hour out of their cells. We found some examples of even greater restrictions’, he went on to say in a few cases some inmates were even refused showers and exercise for up to 14 days.
While this solitary confinement has been successful in containing outbreaks of the virus across prisons, Deborah Coles, director of Inquest stated that indefinite solitary confinement was the ‘harrowing reality for men, women and children across the prison estate’. This suicide spike may demonstrate that the current regime of mass solitary confinement is not practical long term. However, it may reflect the overcrowding and sanitary conditions in prisons, as reported previously in The Justice Gap, making these locations perfect for spreading a deadly virus leaving little choice but to implement strict restrictions. This overcrowding in relation to coronavirus fears was said to be addressed by temporarily releasing certain prisoners but out of the 4,000 eligible, less than 60 have been released.
Shadow justice secretary David Lammy however, told the Guardian that the increase in suicides raises questions as to whether confinement is protecting or putting lives at risk.
As of 5pm yesterday (Sunday 31 May):
466 prisoners (across 79 prisons);
923 prison staff (across 105 prisons); and
26 Prisoner Escort and Custody Services staff have tested positive.
— The Howard League (@TheHowardLeague) June 1, 2020