Shipman coverage blamed for rise in prison suicides

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The Independent Online

Harold Shipman's death is being blamed by the Prison Service for a spate of inmates hanging themselves in apparent copycat suicides.

In the five days after the serial killer was found dead at Wakefield Prison, five prisoners ­ including three people on remand ­ have been found hanged in their cells. The hig-profile nature of Dr Shipman's death has influenced other inmates, prison sources say

A senior Prison Service source said that after Shipman's death it had anticipated a surge in the death rate, which is running at four times last year's levels.

"All the pictures on television will have put the idea in people's heads. That sort of coverage can tilt people who are already on the edge," he said.

The death of Dr Shipman was the lead story on most newspapers and news channels.

The Prison service blamed a "bidding war" between 24-hour television news channels and red-top tabloids for the most graphic and detailed accounts of Shipman's death for encouraging inmates to contemplate suicide. A spokeswoman said: "If a suicide is covered nationally, as it was with Shipman, we expect an increase in self-harm incidents." However, she admitted that the rate after the former GP's death had been "almost unprecedented".

The service has been particularly annoyed by a graphic in The Sun giving instructions to Roy Whiting, the killer of the schoolgirl Sarah Payne, on how to take his life. After several complaints from members of the public, the Press Complaints Commission is considering whether to take action over the report.

Hours after Shipman's body was discovered,prompting saturation coverage of the death on television and radio news bulletins, April Sherman, a prisoner on remand, was found hanging in her cell at Edmunds Hill prison, Suffolk.

The next day, Phillip Taylor, a convicted drug dealer, apparently committed suicide at Blakenhurst Prison, Worcestershire. Over the weekend Philip Rustell was found dead at Reading Young Offenders' Institution, Berkshire; James Skelly at Portland Young Offenders' Institution, Dorset; and Craig Roach at Exeter Prison, Devon.

Enver Solomon, a policy officer at the Prison Reform Trust, said: "If you have vulnerable people suffering high levels of distress and there's a lot of public attention and media focus on a suicide, that could be a factor in forcing them to go further than they would have done otherwise."

Martin O'Neill, a spokesman for the Samaritans, said: "There is evidence that the repeated portrayal of suicide in the media can lead to copycat incidents. However, that does not mean that discussing the issue is a bad thing. A responsible portrayal of the issue is important."

Martin Narey, the Commissioner for Correctional Services at the Home Office, has admitted it has faced "a nightmare" this month with suicide levels. Last year, 94 people in custody killed themselves, one below the previous year's record total, and there were an estimated 15,000 cases of inmates deliberately injuring themselves, an increase of about 30 per cent. Anne Owers, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, this week condemned in her annual report the "shocking" suicide rate in jails, warning that the "debilitating" impact of overcrowding was a crucial factor.

After a review of suicide policy, changes will be introduced in the way potentially suicidal inmates are handled, with greater emphasis on assessing their mental state and whether they have drug problems.

A scheme under which prisoners are trained to become "listeners" for depressed cellmates will be expanded andPrison staff will also be given greater instruction in spotting suicidal signs among prisoners. More "safer" cells, with fewer ligature points, will also be opened.

* The Prison Service is to pay £120,000 to seven former young offenders who complained they were assaulted by officers.

The seven claimed they were punched, slapped, kicked and had their heads slammed repeatedly against the floor by segregation block wardens at Portland Young Offenders' Institution in Dorset.