Visitors blame Prison Service for six suicides

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The Independent Online

Home Affairs Correspondent

The Prison Service has been blamed for failing to act on warnings which could have prevented a series of suicides in Wandsworth prison in London.

A damning report by the prison's Board of Visitors highlighting six deaths in 12 months - one-tenth of all prison suicides - says some of those lives might have been saved "had those responsible at all levels in the Prison Service responded properly and promptly".

The report also calls on the Home Secretary to end the practice of holding asylum seekers in prison, after several in Wandsworth have attempted suicide or embarked upon near-fatal hunger strikes.

The board demands an urgent investigation into the threefold increase in the number of allegations of ill treatment of prisoners by staff, including some claims of assault. It says not one of the 91 complaints has been substantiated but that investigations have been "superficial and inadequate".

The report is expected to be followed next month by an equally critical report by Judge Stephen Tumim, the Chief Inspector of Prisons. And it follows hard on the heels of unprecedented criticism by Dr Paul Knapman, the Westminster coroner, who conducted all six inquests.

Four of the six deaths involved inmates who were known to be at risk and who were held in the jail's health-care centre.

In January last year, fearing suicides, the board had taken the unusual step of sending a critical and detailed report on the perceived shortcomings of the medical centre and the inadequate suicide prevention methods to the Home Secretary.

There was no response until May and then many of the board's concerns were unanswered. In particular, its request for the removal of easy places to suspend nooses, such as window bars, was not acted on.

The latest report acknowledges the prison has recently developed better suicide prevention schemes and praises staff whose prompt efforts have saved several other lives. However, it says there has still not been a formal inquiry into the six deaths to look for common features and calls for a proper system of ensuring that all attempts at suicide and self- harm are properly recorded and analysed.

The report says immediate response and action should have followed its detailed warnings last year. "The Prison Service must therefore take responsibility for failing to implement measures which might have prevented such a tragic chain of events," it says.

The report also highlights the "desperate" plight of alleged illegal immigrants and would-be refugees - some held for many months in "unacceptable" and volatile conditions with remand prisoners. The board said it "deplored" the fact that they were being held in jails. Last year, four almost starved themselves to death before they were released into the community.

The board says no one in the jail has specific responsibility for detainees and many are kept in ignorance for prolonged periods by the Immigration Department of progress in their cases.

Yesterday, a Prison Service spokesman said Wandsworth was now installing windows from which inmates could not hang themselves. It had also implemented a wide range of suicide-prevention policies, including a listener scheme run in conjunction with the Samaritans.

He said the service was developing five units within prisons to hold detainees so their specialist needs could be met away from other inmates. Detention was only ever used as a last resort in immigration and asylum cases, he said.