Record numbers die in prison

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The Independent Online
Jason Bennetto

Crime Correspondent

A record number of inmates committed suicide in jails in England and Wales last year, provoking anger among penal reformers who blamed overcrowding and harsher regimes on the rise.

Sixty-four prisoners took their own lives with at least a further 10 suicides in Scottish jails, including three at the country's only establishment for women.

This year's total, announced yesterday, is four higher than the previous peak in 1994. The death tally has been gradually rising with 33 suicides in England and Wales in 1989.

In the year from April 1990 there were 39 suicides in prisons in England and Wales, rising to 47 in 1993 and 62 in 1994.

Deborah Coles, co-director of Inquest, a pressure group for people who die in custody, said: "It's a chilling reminder of the reality of prison life. My fear is that the continuing trend to imprison people and combined with increasingly harsh regimes will lead to an ever growing number of deaths."

Clare Sparks, policy officer of the Prison Reform Trust said: "The record number of suicides is a result of tremendous financial constraints and over-crowding in the prison service in 1996.

"This has lead to cuts in important measures such as education, recreation, and the treatment of mentally ill inmates." She added that prisoners on remand, who were particularly vulnerable, were not getting enough attention.

Richard Tilt, the director of the Prison Service, stressed that because of the increased number of inmates, the number of suicides proportionate to the prison population - which at an average 55,200 this year was 4,200 higher than in 1995 - had actually fallen.

But he added: "I am concerned that, while proportionate to the population suicides have slightly reduced, the level of self-inflicted deaths is still too high.

"We will do everything possible to reduce the number next year. I believe the preventive strategies we have developed at prisons over the last two years have helped and will continue to do so."

Suicide prevention strategies include risk awareness training for staff, allowing Samaritan volunteers to visit prisoners regularly, and "listener" schemes which involve training prisoners to provide support for other inmates at risk.

In Scotland, where last year's figures have yet to be released, the problem of prison suicides has been highlighted by the spate of deaths at Cornton Vale women's prison in Stirling.

An investigation has begun into the latest death, that of Yvonne Gilmour, 22, from Glasgow, who was found dead on Christmas Eve. Despite being on suicide watch, which meant she was regularly observed by staff in her cell, she still managed to hang herself with a bed sheet.

A report into previous deaths described conditions at the prison as a "mixture between a casualty clearing station and a psychiatric ward".

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