Prison suicides more than double in a year

All deaths in prison up by a quarter

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Prison suicides have soared by 64 per cent in the last year as inmates suffer a “rising toll of despair", the prison watchdog has said.

This dramatic rise may be due to overstretched staff and rising numbers of prisoners with mental health problems, the prisons and probation ombudsman, Nigel Newcomen, wrote in his annual report. He also called on the Prison Service to review the way it deals with suicide and self-harm.

All deaths in prison, immigration detention and probation service approved premises, were up 25 per cent in 2013/14, to 239. Of these, 130 deaths were from natural causes, up seven per cent, nine were classified as "other non-natural" and six await a cause of death. There were also four murders - twice as many as the year before.

Mr Newcomen said: “It has been suggested that prison staff are now so stretched, and the degree of need among some prisoners so high, that they may no longer be able to provide adequate care and support for some vulnerable prisoners. The evidence for this remains anecdotal and every day prison staff do save many prisoners from themselves - an achievement which goes largely unreported and without which the tragic number of suicides would be even higher.

“Nevertheless, the prison system is undeniably facing enormous challenges. It is nearly a decade since the Prison Service introduced its current suicide and self-harm procedures and, given the examples of poor implementation described in this annual report and the worrying increase in suicides, I believe it is time to review and refresh these arrangements.”

Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: “If the tragic and rapid rise in the number of self-inflicted deaths in custody does not wake ministers up to the damage drastic cuts and rushed policy decisions are doing to the prison service and the people in its care, it is hard to know what will.

“It’s time to reserve prison for the most serious and violent offenders and to ensure that, wherever possible, people who are mentally ill are diverted into the care and treatment they so urgently need.”

Prisons Minister Andrew Selous said: “Reducing the number of self-inflicted deaths in custody is a key priority and we are working hard to understand the reasons for the recent rise, but there is no simple explanation.

“We have a high proportion of people with mental health issues in the prison population and, as the case in society, the reasons behind any suicide are complex and individual. Young adults are a particularly challenging and vulnerable group, and that is why we have commissioned an independent review into the deaths of 18-24 year-olds in prison custody.

“Every death is also investigated by the police and the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman and a Coroner's inquest, with strenuous efforts made to learn lessons.”