Over the last 12 months 371 people died in prison representing the highest number since recording began in 1978, according to a prison watchdog. The Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody reported that there had been 86 suicides, as an increase of close to a third (28%) on the previous year, and 250 deaths classed as ‘natural causes’, a 13% increase.
The group called on the government to make the prevention of avoidable deaths in custody its ‘top priority’ and noted that numbers were ‘only partly attributable’ to the pandemic. ‘The causes of deaths in custody are complex but well evidenced,’ it said ‘Priority focus – and funding – should be on these issues before any further proposals are explored and delivered.’
The panel was responding to the government’s prison strategy white paper which claims to be ‘the largest prison building programme in more than a century’ providing for 20,000 extra prison places. ‘Prisons are not safe places, and the planned expansion of the estate set out in this strategy presents a very real risk that the number and rate of deaths of people held under the care of the state will increase,’ the group says. Instead, they call on ministers to invest in healthcare and community alternatives to imprisonment and, ‘where absolutely necessary’ prioritise ‘evidence-based design of new establishments which prioritises the prevention of deaths, replaces existing unsafe buildings, and meets the demands of the prison population’s shifting demographics’.
The latest deaths in figures reveal that almost four out of 10 of all self-inflicted deaths (37%) were by prisoners on remand. This was explained by the increase in the number of people being held on remand as a result of the pandemic and was described as ‘deeply troubling’.