Jail overcrowding blamed for rise in suicides

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The Independent Online

The prison overcrowding crisis has been blamed for a rise of nearly 40 per cent in the number of prisoners killing themselves.

Prison reformers expressed outrage after figures released by the Ministry of Justice showed that 92 prisoners killed themselves in jail last year, up from 67 in 2006. The figures include seven inmates under 21 and one boy of 15 who killed himself while serving a sentence of just 45 days for breaching a supervision order.

The ministry also said more than 100 prisoners were resuscitated after "serious self-harm incidents".

Ministers expressed their sincere regret at the deaths and insisted that everything possible was done to learn the lessons of any incident.

Seven women were among those who killed themselves in prison, up from just three in 2006. Overall, remand prisoners made up 41 of the deaths, while 18 lifers killed themselves along with four on indeterminate sentences.

Frances Crook, director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: "A leap of 37 per cent in the annual prison suicide rate is the human cost of the prisons crisis. The prison service has taken great strides in suicide prevention in recent years but it is all for naught when the system is on its knees with record overcrowding.

"Staff and resources are strained to the limit coping with an ever-swelling prison population rife with mental health problems, drug and alcohol addiction and histories of neglect and abuse.

She added: "Prison is where we seek to sweep away social problems, blithely unaware of the fact that we are simply compounding the problems we seek to avoid. Little or nothing is done to tackle the underlying causes of crime in custody. While prisoners are inside, their families struggle to cope without fathers and mothers. For those individuals who survive a prison sentence, two thirds will be reconvicted within two years of release and most likely for more serious offences than before."

Lucie Russell, director of the pressure group SmartJustice, which campaigns for alternatives to prison, said: "This is an unacceptable number of deaths especially when some of those who killed themselves were children as young as 15 years old.

"Many people who commit suicide in prison are disturbed and damaged and shouldn't have been there in the first place. Using prison as the ultimate social service only leads to more tragedies of this kind."

Nick Herbert, the shadow Justice Secretary, said: "Rising prison suicides are a terrible indictment of the Government's mismanagement of the prison system. Ministers ignored repeated warnings about inadequate prison capacity and they allowed the prisons to become ever more overcrowded."

The Ministry of Justice said that 130,000 inmates passed through the prison system each year and praised the work of prison officers in preventing suicides. Maria Eagle, the Prisons minister, said: "The Government remains determined to prevent deaths in custody. I sincerely regret this year's increase in self-inflicted deaths after the significant decreases of recent years. Our prisons contain large numbers of very vulnerable people, and caring for them is challengingwork. All those involved remain totally committed and I commend them for that."