New figures show record levels of self-harm and high numbers of deaths in prison

By agency reporter
May 4, 2020

The Ministry of Justice has released the latest statistics on deaths and self-harm in prison. These statistics have coincided with the publication of a critical report by the Council of Europe’s Committee of the Prevention of Torture (CPT) on their visit to the United Kingdom.
The Safety in Custody statistics show every five days a person in prison takes their life and for the seventh consecutive year, self-harm has reached record levels. It is reported that in the 12 months to December 2019, self-harm incidents reached a new record high of 63,328 incidents, up 14 per cent from the previous 12 months. This is almost double the number of self-harm incidents than in the same period in 2015 (32,313).
In the 12 months to March 2020, there were a total of 286 deaths of people in prison, around six deaths every week. Of these deaths:

  • 80 were self-inflicted.
  • 160 were classed as ‘natural causes’, though INQUEST casework and monitoring shows many of these deaths are in fact premature and far from ‘natural’.
  • 43 deaths were recorded as ‘other’, 39 of which are awaiting classification.
  • Six were in women’s prisons, of which four were self-inflicted.
  • There were also three homicides.

On 24 March, the Secretary of State for Justice placed prisons across England and Wales under immediate lock down. Since then, prisoners have been locked in their cell for over 23 hours a day with the suspension of social visits, education and workshops. Public Health Officials have since warned that in the absence of a vaccine or effective treatment for the virus, risks of large outbreaks in the prison estate will remain and therefore restrictions will be needed until April 2021.

Deborah Coles, Director of INQUEST, said: “People in prison are totally dependent on the state for their safety. These latest figures show around six people are dying in prison every week and that levels of self-harm have shattered previous record highs. This reflects a long running failure in the government’s duty of care to protect lives in prison.
"Regretfully we fear the worst is yet to come as the impact of the virus is felt throughout the prison estate. The frustration and despair of prisoners faced with prolonged isolation in appalling conditions must be closely monitored and addressed.
"That only 40 people have so far been released early from prison is shameful. The government must show political courage and rapidly reduce the prison population to save lives.”

The CPT undertook an ad hoc visit to the United Kingdom between 13 – 23 May 2019 which included visits to three local male adult prisons (HMP Doncaster, HMP Liverpool and HMP Wormwood Scrubs). The report finds that all three prisons are failing to adequately manage prisoners at risk of serious self-harm or suicide and recommends that ‘concrete steps to significantly reduce the prison population’ are taken.
Other concerns by the CPT include that:

  • Many prisoners were enduring restricted and isolating regimes and/or long periods of segregation which can exacerbate the situation for those suffering from mental ill health and increase the risk of self-harm.
  • In two of the three prisons visited, prisoners were subject to unjustified violence inflicted by staff. This includes an informal practice of ‘preventive strikes’ described as ‘preventively’ punching compliant prisoners whom staff perceived might become a threat in the future.
  • There were deficiencies in the suicide and self-harm monitoring procedures (known as ACCT processes). The report recommends that authorities develop more effective operational strategies to address the escalating number of prisoners at risk of self-harm and self-inflicted death.

Deborah Coles, Director of INQUEST said: "This report by the committee on torture is a damning indictment of the state of prisons. That such systemic staff violence appears not to have been picked up by inspection and monitoring bodies raises serious concerns. The Government’s indifferent and complacent response to abusive practices within prisons is telling. These disturbing findings require urgent parliamentary scrutiny."

Recent figures from the Ministry of Justice indicate that there have been 15 deaths of prisoners who tested positive for coronavirus, and five prison staff have also died. There have been six self-inflicted deaths of prisoners after prisons went into lockdown on 24 March 2020.
According to INQUEST’s casework and monitoring, there have been at least another 30 deaths of people in prison from 1 April – 23 April. Of these, were 24 non self-inflicted (of which 11 deaths were of a person who had tested positive for COVID-19), four self-inflicted and two are awaiting classification.

* The Safety in Custody statistics are available here

* Read the CPT report here

* Committee for the Prevention of Torture https://www.coe.int/en/web/cpt

* INQUEST https://www.inquest.org.uk/


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