Any humane regime incurs risk

After Frederick West's death, Paul Vallely asks whether jails do enough to prevent suicides
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The Independent Online
In certain quarters the response to the news that Frederick West had been found hanged was unequivocal. "Happy Noose Year", proclaimed the Sun above its report of "joy as House of Horror killer hangs himself in jail". Elsewhere there were uneasy e choes of an earlier era with judgements that West had "cheated the gallows".

There was more ambivalence from those who felt that the process of justice had been subverted. The dead man's solicitor professed himself surprised "that a tragic event of this nature could occur involving a high-profile remand prisoner on a supervised prison wing at lunchtime on New Year's Day". It inevitably raises important and fundamental questions as to the safety and security of those in jail, he said.

Judge Stephen Tumim, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, went on the radio to announce that the man should have been kept under 24-hour surveillance. Jack Straw, Labour's spokesman on home affairs, immediately accused the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, of "losing his grip on the prison service".

But was such a response appropriate? There is a grave problem with the levels of suicide in British jails, of that there can be no doubt. The figures for the number of inmates who took their own lives in 1994 have not yet been released, but they are likely to exceed the 46 suicides in 1993, which itself was worrying by comparison with an average figure of 25 a decade ago. Many of them have been under the age of 20.

The Government has acted to counter this, establishing a suicide prevention programme in which the Samaritans offered advice on spotting inmates who were at risk. But the results of the initiative have been disappointing. Since then, dozens more teenagers have taken their lives, often found hanging from makeshift scaffolds or bars by strips of cloth, sheet or dungaree straps.

"It's a very serious problem," says Dr Laurence Lustgarten, professor of law at Southampton University and a specialist in criminal justice. The proportion of people who kill themselves is greater among prisoners than among the general population; those on remand are more prone to it than those who have been sentenced. "It has something to do with the way that people are treated by warders and fellow prisoners. People who are on remand, many of whom are innocent, are particularly psychologically vulnerable."

Undoubtedly. But Frederick West cannot be said to fit into such a category. "No one has any doubt that he was correctly remanded in custody," says Dr Rod Morgan, professor of criminal justice at Bristol University, and one of the three assessors on the 1990 Woolf report into prison conditions in the aftermath of the Strangeways riot. "All the evidence is that even if you have satisfactory suicide prevention programmes - and the prison service has done a lot of work on this in recent years - you won't beable to predict with any high degree of accuracy who will make the attempt."

This is true even of those like West - who, if reports in the tabloid press are correct, frequently told fellow prisoners he would kill himself. He even shouted it aloud, according to one inmate, so that everyone, including the staff, could hear. The suggestion was that he did it so often, no one took him seriously.

Winson Green prison does not have a distinguished record in such matters. There have been 10 suicides there since 1985, the most recent almost exactly a year ago. In 1990 Judge Tumim said that checks to prevent suicides were not regular enough in the jail. Indeed, he said yesterday that, in a full report on prison suicide in 1991: "I was very much advising against 15-minute checks and in favour, in appropriate cases, of continuous observation." High-risk prisoners should share a cell or be watched by someone else the whole time. "There may be good reasons why he [West] should share a cell, one of which is the possibility of suicide."

Professor Morgan disagrees. "It's not cost-effective, because we can't predict who's going to do it. "More than that, 24-hour surveillance is inhumane because it deprives prisoners of a basic human dignity: "Every prisoner should have a certain degree ofprivacy and every person should be allowed certain items of clothing which might make it possible for them to commit suicide. One of the traditional ways of dealing with those liable to commit suicide was to put them in a strip cell where it was impossible for them to suspend themselves, to deprive them of clothes and put them into what was almost a strait-jacket. Those types of cell were until quite recently regularly used in prison hospitals.

"If you're going to run a humane regime, it is going to involve risk. Any prison system is going to have the odd suicide which no one could reasonably have prevented and the fact that it happens doesn't necessarily cast any slur upon the quality of the staff or regime. Indeed, it may indicate, to the contrary, that the regime is sufficiently humane to allow risks."

Attempts are made to minimise that risk. British prisons now have a programme to coach warders in the early warning signs. Reception officers bear the particular burden, being required to screen incoming prisoners for tell-tale signs - a history of mental health treatment or of physical self-abuse. They are trained to watch for signs that newcomers may in the past have harmed themselves. Scars across the wrists are common enough.

Those deemed at risk are marked for informal supervision. More serious cases are put in cells closer to warders' offices or on the ground floor in the prison hospital; the worst are put on a special watch that requires officers to look into their cell every 15 minutes and their state to be recorded on a log-sheet. The problem is that large numbers of prisoners are on the 15-minute watch, which is very staff intensive . Many succeed in committing suicide in the short intervals. West was only one.

Judge Tumim's notion that another prisoner should have shared a cell with West does not meet with universal approval. Who, after all, would have wanted to be a bunk-mate with a man accused of such a gruesome series of crimes?

"With a Category A prisoner like West the Home Office has a dual duty," says Professor Morgan. "He may have been at risk of attack from other prisoners." Which is why West was kept in a reinforced cell and was always accompanied by at least two officers when out of it.

"If he had been attacked by fellow prisoners and killed - as was the case with Jeffrey Dahmer in the States - that would have been a greater cause for questioning than the fact that he's committed suicide," adds Professor Morgan. "There are some suicidesthat are not preventable. It's not self-evident that because he's committed suicide the system must have been at fault."