Overcrowding and staff shortages in England’s jails are now so bad that they are directly fuelling a rise in the number of prisoners killing themselves, the Chief Inspector of Prisons warns today. In an interview with The Independent, Nick Hardwick said it was “not credible” for the Government to deny a link between pressures on the prison system and a big increase in the number of self-inflicted deaths.
His intervention comes as the Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, faces increasing criticism over his handling of the prison system, amid claims that jails have become “death traps” as a result of steep budget cuts.
Mr Hardwick said prisoner suicides were “not acceptable in a civilised country” and said that if ministers wanted the prison population to rise then they needed to provide the “resources to deal with that rise as well”.
His comments come ahead of a report by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman that is due to be published tomorrow into self-inflicted deaths of 18- to 24-year-old prisoners following a spate of recent suicides. In the year to March 88 people took their own lives in English and Welsh prisons – a rise from 52 in the previous year. Since January this year 44 people have committed suicide in jail while the number of incidents of self-harm increased by more than 750 in a year to 23,478. Attacks against staff have also increased by 10 per cent.
Mr Hardwick revealed that in one prison he inspected there had been two self-inflicted deaths shortly before they visited and a further two afterwards despite his warning prison management that the institution was “unsafe”.
“There has certainly been deterioration over the last year. Prisons are less safe,” he said. “The reasons why any individual who is despairing tips over into a suicide are very diverse,” he said. “But if you put together the lack of staffing levels, the overcrowding, the lack of activity, then I don’t think it is credible to deny that those are contributory factors.”
His comments were backed by Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, who said: “Government policy has led to people dying unnecessarily.”
But a Prison Service spokesperson claimed they “always have and we always will ensure there are enough staff to deliver safe and effective prison regimes”. “We have a high proportion of people with mental health issues in the prison population, and we are working very hard to understand the recent fluctuations in self-inflicted deaths. Reducing the number of self-inflicted deaths is a key priority.”