The campaigning group Black Mental Health UK has condemned the rapid rise in the number of suicides in prison over the past 12 months, and is seeking the backing of community and faith groups in its call for urgent government action.
The latest official statistics indicate that black prisoners are currently passing through the prison system at a rate five times higher than that of white prisoners, says BMH, which is calling for a government enquiry.
"Clearly there are concerns about this and we need to have an ethnic breakdown of exactly who has died in prison in the last 12 months in order to establish current trends," Lord Herman Ouseley, former head of the Commission For Racial Equality (now part of the Commission on Equality and Human Rights) said.
He continued: "One suicide is one to many and we have seen figures on the over representation of ethnic minorities within prison settings but have not been given any answers as to why this is not being addressed."
According to the Ministry of Justice, 93 people lost their lives in the prison system in 2007. Meanwhile the Howard League for Penal Reform indicates that 45 percent of those who died were either being held on remand, un-sentenced or awaiting sentence after conviction.
"It is disturbing to see that half of the people who have lost their lives in these institutions were not actually convicted of any crime but rather were on remand or awaiting sentencing," the Rev Paul Grey from the New Testament Church of God in Nuneatun commented.
Penal reformers blame overcrowding for the increase in deaths. Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Prisons' thematic review of mental health published last October showed staffing levels in prison mental health care are one-third of what is needed, with the majority of prisoners with mental health problems getting inadequate care and being released with the same, or worse, problems as they experienced 'inside'.
"It is not conducive to anyone's mental well being to be behind bars, human potential was never meant to be locked away it was meant to released. The current models that are being used are flawed. If they weren't, then people staying in the system would not be dying," Mr Grey continued.
Black Mental Health UK has welcomed prisons minister Maria Eagle's call for an inquiry into the reasons behind the increase in deaths and to look into measures to improve security for those suffering from mental health problems. '
"An inquiry is welcomed and urgently needed. We must ensure that there is appropriate and equal representation of all stakeholders, especially from the communities most adversely effected by this problem", declared BMH UK director Matilda MacAttram.
She added: "It is horrifying to think that there has been at least one death every week in 2007 in prison settings. We need an ethnic breakdown of these figures to gauge the extent of the problem so we can establish effective strategies to ensure that these figures come down."