Michael Gove urged to act over 'massive rise' in prison suicides

'Every four days, someone in prison takes their own life'

The Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, is being urged to act over a “massive” rise in prison suicides and self-harm amid revelations that hundreds of inmates wait for weeks before receiving hospital treatment, despite being sectioned under the Mental Health Act.

In the five months from April to September this year, 343 prisoners who had been sectioned under the Act – many of them at serious risk of self-harm – waited more than 14 days. 

Prisoners identified at heightened risk of suicide or self-harm are cared for under the Assessment, Care in Custody and Teamwork process (ACCT), yet 60 per cent of prisoners who took their own lives this year did not have an ACCT plan, according to the response to a parliamentary question asked by Luciana Berger, the shadow minister for mental health, this month. 

Ms Berger and the Labour peer Lord Falconer told The Independent on Sunday: “Every four days, someone in prison takes their own life. If our society is facing a mental health crisis then the situation within our prisons is all the more grave.

“Michael Gove’s warm words are not translating into action. In 2009, Lord Bradley’s report found too many offenders with poor mental health were ending up in prison without access to appropriate treatment. Prison was exacerbating their condition and frequently leading many to reoffend, self-harm or even commit suicide. Six years on and suicide rates have increased – with self-harm going up by 21 per cent in the past year alone.”

On 17 December, the Government’s response to Lord Harris’s review into self-inflicted deaths in custody of 18- to 24-year-olds rejected more than 30 recommendations, including requiring prisons to record details of time spent out of the cells and having a specific strategy to cover bullying in prisons.

Glyn Travis, assistant general secretary of the Prison Officers Association, said: “The consistent increases in the use of legal highs within prisons is exacerbating the problem and making more prisoners more vulnerable. We have seen a massive spike in serious self-harm and suicide in the past 12 months.”

A Government spokesman said: “Mental health in custody is taken extremely seriously and the prison service and NHS work very closely to keep prisoners safe.

“Progress has been made in the past five years, but every death in custody is a tragedy and we recognise there are improvements to be made. We are working hard to make sure all prisoners with mental health problems have the support they need.”