Call for action as self-inflicted deaths, self-harm and violence in prison continues to rise

By agency reporter
July 26, 2019

The Ministry of Justice has released the latest statistics on Safety in Custody, highlighting an increase in self-inflicted deaths and self-harm. This continues the historically high level of deaths in prison, seen in the past six years.

The key statistics on deaths in prison in the 12 months to June 2019 include:

  • 86 self-inflicted deaths, up 6 per cent from 81 in the previous year. This represents one self-inflicted death in prison every four days.
  • 309 deaths in prison in total, only two fewer than the past 12 months despite increased investment and scrutiny.
  • 165 deaths which the MOJ describe due to “natural causes”. INQUEST’s casework and monitoring show these deaths often reflect serious lapses in care (see notes).
  • 55 deaths recorded as ‘other’ or awaiting classification, a particularly high number.

In the 12 months to March 2019, self-harm levels have increased by 24 per cent from the previous year, once again reaching record highs. Self-harm incidents requiring hospital attendance have increased in male establishments by 4 per cent and by 34 per cent in female establishments. In the child and youth prison estate, there was a 30 per cent increase in self-harm incidents. Overall, this reflects rising levels of distress in prisons.

Deborah Coles, Director of INQUEST said: "Every four days a person in prison takes their own life. Appalling inspection reports, damning inquest findings, and statistics on yet more deaths, have become so regular that those in power seem to forget these are human beings to whom the state owes a duty of care. Families continue to be traumatised, not only by the deaths, but by the failure to enact change.

"Deaths, self-harm, violence, impoverished regimes and conditions are the daily reality of the prison system. Despair and distress are at unprecedented levels in failing institutions within a failing system. The failure to act on warnings from inspection, monitoring, investigation bodies and inquests exposes an accountability vacuum allowing dangerous practices to continue.  

"The new Justice Secretary must act upon what are clear solutions - tackle sentencing policy, reduce the prison population and redirect resources to community health and welfare services. This however requires bold and decisive action at a political and institutional level, not more empty words.”

Levels of assaults in prison have also risen, reaching record highs. This comes despite programmes of investment focused on reducing violence and increasing security over the period in the 10 most ‘challenging’ prisons. In the 10 prisons themselves, the total number of deaths has risen.

Analysis of INQUEST’s casework shows that recent inquests on deaths in prison highlight repeated and systemic failings around self-harm and suicide risk management (known as ACCT procedures), drug prescribing processes, communication, record keeping, inadequate healthcare, and procedural failures and delays. See relevant inquests in the notes.

The Office for National Statistics has also published experimental statistics looking at the risk of suicide and drug-related deaths for men in prison compared to the general male population. They found, the risk of male prisoners dying by suicide was 3.7 times higher than the general male population during the 9-year period they considered.  

* Safety in Custody statistics here

* INQUEST is a charity providing expertise on state related deaths and their investigation to bereaved people, lawyers, advice and support agencies, the media and parliamentarians.


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