Martin Narey said the "dreadful" suicide rate among prisoners had doubled from 62 per 100,000 in 1983 to 125 per 100,000 last year.
Mr Narey, who was appointed director-general eight weeks ago, said that there was now an action plan aimed at reversing the growing death toll.
The announcement comes ahead of a report on prison suicide to be published this week by Sir David Ramsbotham, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, which is expected to be critical.
Mr Narey pledged to eliminate the use of strip cells for vulnerable prisoners by April 2000. Such bare rooms had been regarded as the safest environment for suicidal inmates.
Instead, high-risk prisoners will be placed in private "comfortable suites" where meals are taken, which can have three separate rooms equipped with armchairs, television and private showers.
Prisoners will be kept under 24-hour supervision by closed-circuit television. The policy is a significant change from the days when mentally unsettled inmates - callously dubbed "fraggles" by fellow inmates - were slung into a "strip cell" for their own safety.
All prisons will be expected to have a number of "safe cells", designed with no ligature points so that inmates cannot hang themselves.
The cells have no handles on the window-frames and no heating pipes. Taps on the sink have been replaced by push buttons.
Even the space under the bed has been filled in after prisoners managed to strangle themselves in the few inches beneath the bed-springs. The new design will be used for all future prison cell-blocks.
Suicidal inmates will also be encouraged to take part in arts-related therapies, including painting and drama. Prison chiefs are encouraged by the results of a sound and light therapy project, pioneered at Belmarsh high-security prison in south London.
Vulnerable prisoners are relaxed by soothing music as they sit in a room where kaleidoscopic colours are projected on to walls and bounced off a disco-style glitter ball that hangs from the ceiling.
Mr Narey has also been impressed by work at the notorious Ryker's Island jail in New York, where suicides have been greatly reduced after staff were trained to recognise mental illness. The director-general wants similar training in England and Wales.
"The old philosophy of using strip cells was inhuman," he said. "The move has to be away from that treatment to an approach which is rather more supportive to the individual."
Mr Narey said the bulk of prison admissions were young men from deprived backgrounds, often with psychiatric or drug problems. He intends to meet the families of prisoners who died in custody and let them see internal reports on the deaths.Reuse content