The number of suicides in our jails has become ‘national scandal’

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The number of suicides in our jails has become ‘national scandal’

HMP Prison: Pic from Proof 4 by Andy Aitchison

The number of suicides in prisons has become a ‘national scandal’, according to the prison inspectorate’s annual report which found that safety had declined in 10 prisons and violence increased in more than half. Over the course of the last year, the prisons inspector Peter Clarke used the new ‘urgent notification’ procedure requiring the justice secretary to publish an action plan to bring about immediate improvements three times (Exeter, Bedford and Birmingham) where inspectors found ‘some of the worst conditions they had ever seen’.

‘Far too many of our jails have been plagued by drugs, violence, appalling living conditions and a lack of access to meaningful rehabilitative activity, commented Clarke. ‘Our inspections of HMPs Exeter, Birmingham and Bedford showed dramatically the need for urgent improvement.’

At Exeter, inspectors found ‘very high levels of vulnerability, self-harm and suicide’, cell bells were ‘routinely ignored’ by staff even when not busy. Conditions in its segregation unit were ‘very poor’. One prisoner was locked up for almost 24 hours a day ‘with almost no human contact and a poor regime’. The jail also had ‘what amounted to an unofficial segregation unit’ making ‘little exploration of the root causes’ leading to prisoners’ isolation and ‘no meaningful plans for their future management’.

At Birmingham, inspectors reported ‘a number of particularly vulnerable prisoners living in squalid cells including one who ‘despite having been formally assessed as vulnerable’ was in ‘a filthy, flooded cell which had the blood of another prisoner on the floor’; and at Bedford only one in three prisoners who had been assessed at risk of self-harm or suicide told inspectors they felt cared for by staff.

‘[Some] particularly vulnerable prisoners were living in squalid cells which were not fit for habitation. One prisoner on assessment, care in custody and teamwork (ACCT) case management procedures was living in a filthy, flooded cell. The blood of another prisoner, who had self-harmed two days previously, had not been cleaned from the cell floor… Rubbish was left lying around in bags and there were problems with fleas, cockroaches and rodents.’
Prison inspectorate on HMP Birmingham

Inspectors visited 35 men’s prisons, three women’s prisons, as well as young offender institutions and immigration removal centres. Overall, self-inflicted deaths rose to 83 in 2018-19 from 72 in 2017-18, an increase of one fifth. There were 45,310 incidents of self-harm in 2018, up 25% from 2017. A total of 28 local and training prisons were inspected during the year, and in 22 of inspectors judged safety to be poor or not sufficiently good.

‘It is no exaggeration to say it is a scandal,’ commented Peter Clarke. ‘People in the care of the state are dying unnecessarily in preventable circumstances.’ He asked whether ‘after years and years and years of the same faults, same mistakes, same admissions leading to self-inflicted deaths’, whether it was time for an independent inquiry.

Deborah Coles, director of the charity INQUEST, said it was ‘unconscionable’ that there was ‘a self-inflicted death every four days in prison’. ‘Self-harm, violence and deaths are an endemic and ever present feature of the prison system,’ she said.

The inspectorate also found that the prison service had been inadequate in its response to the ‘deluge of drugs’, especially psychoactive substances, resulting in many prisoners suffering from debt, bullying and violence.

The report highlighted homelessness on release was ‘a rapidly growing problem’. Fewer than half of prisoners released between October 2016 and January 2018 went out to settled accommodation and there had been a 20-fold increase in rough sleeping on release.