Safety in Custody : Deaths and Self Harm in Prison Custody are Still Alarmingly High

Prisons are struggling to keep vulnerable prisoners safe from the rising tide of drugs, violence and despair in Britain’s jails.

Levels of self-harm and self-inflicted death continue to rise in prisons in England and Wales. They are at levels not seen before, and unfailingly tell us about the state of Britain’s prisons, and its provision for the treatment of mental health.

Sad young man sitting on the floor with a bricks background

In the last nine months the government has ploughed over £70 million into the prisons to improve security, communication and living conditions. The theory is that if there was less crowding, less drugs, better communication, and better leadership, violence will decrease and people will be able to get on with changing their lives without bullying, coercion, stress, fear and the mania of drugs. This would then have a positive effect on the levels of self-harm amongst prisoners.

Prisons Minister, Rory Stewart and Justice Minister, David Gauke have led this battle and there does seem to be a ray of hope in the statistics for October to December, but it is too early to tell if this can be sustained or if it is an anomaly.

Sadly, Rory Stewart has just been promoted to Cabinet and his replacement has not yet been announced. We hope it is someone with insight into the lives of prisoners and someone who will carry the reform agenda forward and not back into the dark ages of Chris Grayling.

A report published on 25th April this year details the stark realities of self-harm and death in custody for 2018. The figures also include numbers from the Immigration Removal Centres operated by HMPPS.

Deaths in Custody

The Ministry of Justice reported 317 deaths in custody up to March 2019. This is a 6% increase on 2017. Eighty-seven of these deaths were self-inflicted, up 14 from 2017. This is nearly one person every day dying while in custody. Put another way nearly 4 prisoners for every 1000 die in custody each year.

The 87 self-inflicted deaths means there is a rate of 1.1 prisoners per 1000 committing suicide while in custody. The rate is almost the same for female prisoners, 1 in 1000 commit suicide. Although due to the much smaller numbers of female prisoners this was a total of 4 deaths last year, however, the rate did rise 75% from 1 death in 2017.

The most recent quarter saw the number of deaths decrease to 77, down 5 from the three months to December 2018. It is too soon to know if this is due to any of the prisons reforms implemented so far.

There were only three murders across the prison estate in 2018. 164 deaths were due to natural causes and 63 deaths were recorded as ‘other’, this means there isn’t enough evidence to classify the death yet, so homicide numbers may rise

Level of Self Harm in Prisons is Dangerously High

Levels of self-harm are at record highs, with 55, 588 incidents recorded, that’s 152 a day. This is a 25% increase on 2017. There is a glimmer of hope that reforms may be starting to have an impact, as the number of incidents fell 7% in the October to December quarter. This was still recorded as 14,313 incidents, a massive number for the prison staff to deal with. Most of the prison officers are not trained in dealing with the mental health issues that cause people to self-harm.

Many self-harm incidents are severe enough to require hospitalisation. In 2018 3,214 cases resulted in hospital attendance, another record high. However, because the number of self-harming incidents has increased in total, the proportion requiring hospital treatment is less, which falsely makes it look like a decrease of 1.1%

The number of incidents of self-harm, 55, 598 is an astonishing rate, it’s 667 incidents per 1,000 prisoners, up 25% on the previous year. This can be a little bit misleading though, as prisoners who self harm tend to do so an average of 4.4 times each. There are a few prisoners who self harm prolifically and throw the numbers off considerably. However, most prisoners (49%) self harm only once a year.

Male and female prisoners trends in self-harm differ in several ways. There are 570 incidents per 1000 prisoners in male prisons and 2,675 incidents per 1000 prisoners in female prisons. Individually males tend to self-harm 4 times per year whereas women self harm 8.3 times. Both these rates had significantly increased from 2017.

Self-harm incidents requiring hospital attendance increased from the previous year in male establishments by 3% to 2,984, and in female establishments by 28% to 230 incidents. The proportion of incidents that required hospitalisation was more than three times higher in male establishments (6.6% compared to 2.2% in female establishments). Meaning more male prisoners severely self harm.

The number of self-harm incidents did fall by 7% in the last quarter of the year, which is positive news, however, it needs to be noted that this number is still a 21% increase on the same quarter in 2017.

The report notes one key change, prior to 2018 prisoners in male establishments who are in prison between 31 days and 3 months were consistently the most likely to self-harm. For the first time in 2018, the majority of self-harm incidents occurred when prisoners had been in their current prison for over one year. This may mean that first night procedures have become a lot more robust and that vulnerable prisoners are protected and supported well n the first few months.

If the statistics are to be believed it may be possible that rates of violence and self-harm are slowly decreasing and it is having a positive effect on the mental health of prisoners. However, there is still a huge way to go to make our prisons safe for the people incarcerated within them.

David Gauke wants prisoners to be seen as vulnerable people, the victims of childhood abuse, trauma, poverty and learning disabilities, he is having some success with this. However, if he wants prisoners to stop self-harming and move forward to become productive members of society, the government needs to invest heavily in mental health services within prisons and the community. Rehabilitated prisoners are healthy people, in body and in mind, and this will take money and political will to achieve.

As always we welcome your thoughts on the issues above.

Prison Phone, Keeping prisoners and families connected
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