Jail union seeks action to cut high staff suicide rate

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The government was urged to tackle underfunding in the prison service last night in response to new figures showing that the number of prison officer suicides has soared.

The government was urged to tackle underfunding in the prison service last night in response to new figures showing that the number of prison officer suicides has soared.

The Prison Officers Association called for urgent action after Home Office figures showed 51 prison staff had killed themselves since 1990, with seven suicides last year alone.

Paul Boateng, a Home Office minister, had published the list of "self-inflicted deaths" among Prison Service personnel for the first time. Suicide rates among inmates have been compiled for years.

After a drop in the mid-1990s, the number of suicides among officers has risen in the past few years, increasing from one in 1997 to three in 1998 and seven in 1999. The figures include those deaths where the coroner has recorded a verdict of suicide and in some cases deaths where the inquest verdict has not been notified to Whitehall but circumstances suggested self-harm.

Mr Boateng admitted that the figures may underestimate the number of suicides, where family members may have decided not to report the cause of death to the Prison Service.

Records of the cause of staff deaths before 1990 were not held centrally and could not be obtained cheaply, but the past decade's statistics had now been compiled, he said. An analysis of the figures showed that most of the staff who killed themselves were of lower rank, although five were senior officers and one was a principalofficer.

Mr Boateng said that an investigation into the increased number of suicides was first ordered in 1994 and that the Prison Service had continued to keep the issue under "very careful review" ever since.

Care and welfare officers offered confidential advice and support to prison staff at any time, he said, with particular help for those who had staged unsuccessful suicide attempts. Last year welfare officers dealt with 7,000 cases, most of which related to transfers, physical illness, work-related stress and debts of officers.

External counselling services were also offered so that prison staff could discuss in confidence "the personal and emotional problems which may be generated by working with prisoners", Mr Boateng said.

Last night, the prison officers' union said the figures proved its members were under increasing stress.

Mark Healy, the union's chairman, said that surveys into stress in the public sector had found that the Prison Service was more stressful than policing, nursing or other fields.

He said the main reason for stress was overcrowding inprisons. "Under Jack Straw [the Home Secretary], the number of prisoners has increased by a third and yet the number of prison officers has remained the same. The consequences of that are self-evident," Mr Healy said.

"Budgetary constraints, together with new demands on performance-related targets, mean that prison officers are under more pressure than ever before. More money for occupational health and welfare is needed in order to tackle the problem. The Government could also help if it abandoned its plans to discipline staff who are simply off work ill."

Sir David Ramsbotham, the chief inspector of prisons, called on Mr Straw to sack governors who had high suicide rates in their prisons. There were 91 self-inflicted cell deaths in 1999, the highest number recorded, and there have been 54 prisoner suicides this year.