Prison suicides at record high

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There has been a prison suicide every five days this year - a dismal statistic which, if maintained, will mark 1996 as holding the all-time record for self-inflicted deaths in custody.

In the first six months of the year, 35 prisoners killed themselves. Most were found hanging in their cells, like Gloucester murderer Fred West, whose inquest was held last week. The figures make particularly bleak reading as the sudden rise, which began in 1994, coincides with the implementation of a strategy designed to prevent prison suicides.

Until the early Nineties, the number of suicides in custody was fairly constant, rarely rising much above 40 a year. When the figure leapt, in 1994, to 62, a new suicide prevention strategy was devised, promising a far-reaching and enlightened response. The latest figures would suggest that it is comprehensively failing.

"The strategy itself is perfectly sensible," according to Deborah Cole of Inquest, a support group for the families of those who die in custody. Awareness teams, including local Samaritans, operate in every prison; all prison staff, not just medics, are expected to be alert to warning signs; prisoners are being trained as in-house Samaritans; and treatment should no longer mean merely surveillance, but must tackle the causes of distress. But, says Ms Cole, "the problem is with implementation - and the brutal, disturbing reality of the environment it is operating in".

Over-crowding, boredom, the removal of televisions from cells, the increasing imprisonment of the mentally disturbed, and the isolation felt by the growing numbers of inmates held hundreds of miles from family and friends, are making more and more prisoners suicidal, while overstretched staff have less time to detect or deter them.

An inquest into the death of Claire Bosley, last April, returned a verdict of suicide contributed to by neglect, after she was admitted to Holloway on a maximum suicide alert, yet was allowed, within minutes, to wander off alone to the toilet. She was discovered an hour and a half later, dead, having stuffed tissue paper down her throat.

Tragedies like this are clearly linked to inadequate staffing - but this is exacerbated, says Ms Cole, by a culture that dismisses cries for help as attention seeking. "We had a recent inquest, after a prisoner had had his head in a noose, and the officer had walked off, telling him to 'pull himself together'.

"Staff need the time and motivation to get to know prisoners at risk, but prison culture makes that very hard. The word we hear officers use time and time again is 'manipulative'." She also reports a "stark difference in care according to the nature of the prisoner's offences"; "monsters" (sex offenders), in other words, excite little sympathy.

"Prison staff are only human," acknowledges Martin McHugh, principal psychologist of the Suicide Awareness Support Unit. "It requires a big cultural change. Nobody imagined we would turn it around overnight." But he points out suicide rates among men under 35 are also on the increase outside prison, and applauds the shift away from the notion that "we could just rely on the 15-minute watch".

The Prison Service recognises those most at risk are men, recently admitted for violent crimes, facing a long sentence. Just, in fact, like West. "If they cannot protect someone like him," asks Cole, "it raises the question - who can they protect?"