Prison reform campaigners are calling for a greater investment in prison staff after figures showed prisoner suicides have reached the highest level since recording began in 1978.
A joint report from the Howard League for Penal Reform and charity the Centre for Mental Health revealed that 102 prisoners in England and Wales had taken their own lives this year, with five weeks still left to go. The previous high was in 2004 when 96 deaths were recorded.
At 120 deaths per 100,000, the prisoner suicide rate is about 10 times that found in the general population.
Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “The number of people dying by suicide in prison has reached epidemic proportions. No one should be so desperate while in the care of the state that they take their own life, and yet every three days a family is told that a loved one has died behind bars. “Cutting staff and prison budgets while allowing the number of people behind bars to grow unchecked has created a toxic mix of violence, death and human misery.” But she added that practical steps could be taken to make prisons safer and reduce pressure in the system.
Alongside investments in staff and a reduction in the prison population, the report called for the revised Incentives and Earned Privileges scheme to be scrapped. Changes introduced three years ago by then justice secretary Chris Grayling, toughened the scheme, requiring prisoners to work actively for privileges such as TV and mobile phone use. The report calls for it to be replaced with a new incentive scheme that rewards positive behaviour, encourages participation and recognises the needs of the most vulnerable prisoners.
The report stresses that prison life needs to mirror normal life as much as possible, with prisoners allowed to shower, socialise, occupy themselves productively, go outdoors and exercise. At the moment, too many prisoners spend most of their days segregated, locked up in cells and subject to a greater number of punishments and restrictions.
Andy Bell, deputy chief executive of the Centre for Mental Health, commented: “Prisoners face a very high risks of suicide and it is essential that prisons and health services work together to prevent loss of life. This requires a fundamental change to the way prisons work, creating an environment that supports well-being and helps prison staff to care.”
A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said: “Mental health in custody is taken extremely seriously and there are a range of measures already in place to help support prisoners. “Providing the right intervention and treatment is vital to improving the outcomes for people who are suffering and all prisons have established procedures in place to identify, manage and support people with mental health issues. “But we recognise that more can be done. That is why I have invested in specialist mental health training for prison officers, allocated more funding for prison safety and have launched a suicide and self-harm reduction project to address the increase in self-inflicted deaths and self-harm in our prisons.”