Prison suicide helplines routinely going unanswered

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Prison suicide helplines routinely going unanswered

HMP Prison: Pic from Proof 4 by Andy Aitchison

Families of prisoners have been unable to contact a suicide and self-harm helpline set up to communicate concerns they have over the welfare of loved ones, according to a new report. The report, published by the Prison Reform Trust working with INQUEST and PACT (Prison Advice and Care Trust), examined how well safer custody telephone lines were being provided.

Prison custody helplines provide family members with a way of communicating urgent concerns to prison staff and were a key part of Lord Farmer’s 2017 report into the importance of strengthening prisoners’ family ties. Lord Farmer recommended that all prisons allow prisoners’ families a way to effectively communicate urgent safety concerns; however the report suggests that these helplines are understaffed, inadequately monitored or simply do not exist.

According to the PRT report, more than one third of prisons (37%) had no functioning dedicated safer custody telephone line for families at all. Of the seventy five dedicated safer custody telephone lines that did actually go through to a safer custody department, only 13 of these were answered by a member of staff and 62 out of the 75 telephone lines put the caller straight through to an answer machine.

Deborah Coles, the director of INQUEST, reported that many bereaved people report difficulty in ‘passing on vital information about their relative’s health and wellbeing, sometimes with devastating consequences’. She cite the case of Jordan Hullock who, aged 19, died whilst in HMP Doncaster. During the inquest into his death in June 2019 it was recorded in evidence ‘when Jordan stopped communicating, his mother emailed and phoned the prison with her concerns, but to no avail’.

A report earlier in the year by HM Inspectorate of Prisons, investigating HMP Bristol, revealed that this answer machine had not been checked by staff at all in the two weeks preceding the inspection. The report also found that of the 62 answer machine messages, only 13 said they would call the caller back.

‘It doesn’t take much imagination to understand the anguish of a family member trying to tell a prison that their loved one inside is at immediate risk but not being able to do so,’ commented Peter Dawson, the director of the Prison Reform Trust. One family member, interviewed as part of the report said: ‘I’d ask them to check on him and they just said to me on numerous times:“This is not a hotel”.’

The 2019 Ministry of Justice ‘Safety in Custody’ report highlighted that self-harm incidents have reached a new record high with 57,968 incidents in the 12months to March 2019.