Prison suicide warnings are being “systematically ignored” by the government, according to new research which exposes “dangerous, longstanding failures” in jails across England and Wales.
A report by charity INQUEST finds that repeated safety failures – including inadequacies in mental and physical healthcare, communication systems and emergency responses – are contributing to high levels of deaths in custody, amounting to a "national scandal".
The year 2016 was the deadliest on record for prisoner deaths, with a total of 354 inmates losing their lives –more than double the number of deaths a decade earlier. Since then, the annual toll has remained at historically high levels, surging by 23 per cent in the year to October 2019 with an inmate now taking their own life every four days.
The findings, based on an analysis of inquests of 61 deaths in custody across England and Wales over the past two years, found that a lack of government action on official recommendations of coroners, the prison ombudsman and inspectorate was leading to preventable deaths.
It also warned that bereaved families were facing a dearth of access to justice, with figures showing that the Ministry of Justice spent £4.2m on legal representation at prison inquests in 2017, while granting just £92,000 in legal aid to relatives of those who died.
Deborah Coles, director of INQUEST, said the report exposed “indefensible levels of neglect and despair” in prison and accused officials and ministers of repeating the empty words that "lessons will be learned".
She added: "The personal stories of those who died show prisons failing in their duty of care towards people long failed by struggling health, education, welfare and social services.
"The system is also failing their families whose trauma over deaths is compounded by the struggle for truth, justice and change. In the long term, protecting both prisoners and the public from more harm will require investment in our communities, not ineffective punitive policies.”
It comes after the Prison and Probation Ombudsman published a damning report stating that there had been “too many cases where there were significant failings in the emergency response” and warning that in many cases she had been forced to make the same recommendations as in previous years because promised improvements had not been made.
Months before, the prisons watchdog called for an independent investigation into suicide and self-harm across jails in England and Wales, saying it was “obviously unacceptable” that, despite warnings, “repeated failings” had led to more deaths in custody.
The latest report found “inconsistent and insufficient” mental health care alongside a failure by staff to share information about risk of suicide and self-harm was contributing to the high levels of self-inflicted deaths.
Staff shortages and a reliance on bank or agency staff who may lack relevant training was highlighted as a common problem, with cancelled and delayed appointments and systems for prioritising appointments too often left to custody staff rather than clinicians.
INQUEST said there were also failures in communication between healthcare, mental health and prison staff, as well as delays in calling for emergency services and reports of failure to respond to cell bells – which are designed for inmates to indicate they need emergency help.
The report calls for a new national oversight mechanism to monitor and enforce the implementation of recommendations from inquests on state related deaths, stating that currently it was left to bereaved families and lawyers to informally perform this function.
The charity also recommends that ministers reallocate resources from criminal justice to community-based health and welfare services, and commit to an immediate reduction in the prison population by halting prison building and diverting people away from the criminal justice system.
Prisons Minister Lucy Frazer QC MP said: “One of the most difficult things to hear in my role is that another person has taken their own life while in prison and I can’t begin to imagine how families must feel when they get the news.
“Far too many prisoners are self-harming and it’s one of the reasons we introduced the key worker scheme in 2018, supported by the recruitment of 4,400 extra prison officers, so that every offender can get dedicated support and have someone to talk to.
“We’ve also given over 25,000 staff better training to spot and prevent self-harm and are investing an extra £2.75bn to modernise prisons, combat drug use and improve the environment in which offenders live.
“We never completely know what drives someone to suicide but I am determined that the Prison Service does everything it can to avoid contributing to that pressure.”