Rise in prison suicides blamed on overcrowding

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A sudden spate of suicides in prison has been blamed on record numbers behind bars. Twelve inmates have killed themselves in the past fortnight, with victims ranging in age from 24 to 64.

A sudden spate of suicides in prison has been blamed on record numbers behind bars. Twelve inmates have killed themselves in the past fortnight, with victims ranging in age from 24 to 64.

Prison service chiefs, shocked by the surge of suicides, have begun an urgent investigation into the unexpected trend. They believed they finally had a grip on the problem, but have been taken aback by the rate of a suicide almost every day this month.

The rash of suicides has coincided with a sharp increase in numbers of offenders in jail, which prison reformers link to politicians' hardline rhetoric on law and order during the general election. Almost 76,000 people, including 4,500 women, are locked up, the highest proportion of any country in western Europe. It is also 3,000 more than at the beginning of the year, piling pressure on staff as they struggle to keep pace with the influx.

Ann Owers, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, said the deaths were mainly in local jails that were "experiencing the sharp end of the population rise" by taking offenders direct from court. Seven of the prisoners who took their lives were on remand or awaiting sentence.

She said: "You've not only got a lot of prisoners, but prisons are having to move them around very rapidly. So they never get a chance to settle in a prison and staff never get a chance to identify and support those who are at risk."

Ms Owers called for the prison population to be reduced to a "more manageable size", for improved support for vulnerable inmates and for mentally ill offenders to be kept out of jail.

Last year there were 95 suicides, including 13 women, in English and Welsh jails, equalling the record set in 2002. There were also thousands of instances of self-harm.

The Prison Service has mounted a major effort to reduce the toll by developing "safer cells", free of ligature points, and improved monitoring of offenders judged at risk. Managers hoped they had turned the corner with just 23 suicides in the first five months of the year, about half the rate of 2004. But the service's cautious optimism has been shattered by June's spate of deaths, prompting an investigation by its safer custody unit.

A Prison Service spokes-woman said: "We will be looking to see if there are any lessons we can learn and act on." She said tackling suicide and self-harm was a priority for ministers and the service was doing an "unprecedented amount of work" to support vulnerable inmates, including training to help those at risk.

"We will continue to work more closely with local primary care trusts to ensure prisoners are getting the help they need when they need it. We will also continue to work to ensure prison is reserved for persistent and dangerous offenders, not those for whom a community punishment is more appropriate."

Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: "This catalogue of deaths must act as a terrible warning to the courts to avoid custody for those who are vulnerable or mentally ill, and a stark wake-up call to Government to act now to improve court diversion, bail provision and treatment options and, at long last, to end prison overcrowding."

She said of the record jail population: "There could be an impact from the election: politicians started talking tough [about crime], which could be reflected in sentences handed out."

Deborah Coles, co-director of the campaign group Inquest, said the suicide prisons were all smaller local establishments, where the regime and conditions are known to be particularly harsh. This was as significant a factor in the number of deaths as general overcrowding in the prison system, she said.

"The death toll from the past few weeks is also going to put a strain on the prisons and probation ombudsman, whose resources are stretched," Ms Coles added. "We believe the lack of resources will affect the speed at which the deaths can be examined and have a serious effect in the plight of the families these prisoners have left behind."

The prison population stood at 75,983 last weekend, 1,400 short of total capacity, but several thousand above comfort levels. The Home Office has appealed to courts to consider non-custodial sentences for more minor offenders. Possible options include extending the release of prisoners on electronic tags and reversing a decision to close the Weare, Portland, the country's only prison ship.

June's toll of deaths

* LEIGHTON DAVIES, 37, 2 June, Gloucester. On remand on drugs charges

* JAMES NOLAN, 27, 3 June, the Weare, Dorset. Serving a sentence for burglary

* JUSTINE REES, 32, 4 June, Eastwood Park, Gloucestershire. Serving a sentence for theft

* NICHOLAS LOVERIDGE, 34, 5 June, Bristol. Awaiting sentence for theft and failing to surrender

* DANIEL ROWLAND, 31, 9 June, Liverpool. On remand for robbery

* PATRICK BAILEY, 42, 11 June, Liverpool. Serving five years for indecent assault

* JAMES FADDEN, 28, 11 June, Norwich. On remand for criminal damage

* JAMES CORLIS, 24, 12 June, Pentonville. On remand for threatening to kill

* ALAN HILL, 55, 13 June, Leicester. On remand for burglary

* STANLEY MURPHY, 64, 14 June, Dorchester. Awaiting sentence for a sex offence

* JAMES McKNIGHT, 39, 14 June, Gloucester. Serving a sentence for actual bodily harm

* NICKY TAFFE, 31, 15 June, Pentonville. Serving 14 years for rape