A suicidal way to run the nation's prisons

The 94 suicides and 7,486 known incidents of self-harm in our jails last year were not inevitable

Our prisons are centres of self-harm and suicide. Since Harold Shipman killed himself on Tuesday, two more people have been tossed on to the pile of penal corpses. Phillip Taylor was 32 years old. He was in prison for conspiracy to supply drugs. He tore his bedsheets into a ligature, attached them to his bunk and snapped his neck. April Sherman was 27, and on remand. She had not been convicted of anything when she hanged herself. But no inspectors will rush to Edmond Hill or Blakenhurst, the prisons where April and Phillip took their lives.

The 94 suicides and 7,486 known incidents of self-harm in our prisons last year were not inevitable. They are the result of a direct political choice made by our government. Successive home secretaries - beginning with Michael Howard but manfully maintained by Jack Straw and David Blunkett - have chosen to stuff our prisons far beyond capacity. They knew this results in frightened and confused prisoners being shunted around, without proper counselling, without significant education, without hope. The Howard League for Penal Reform explained unambiguously that understaffing and overcrowding would kill by creating unbearable living conditions. They were right: suicides have doubled since 1993.

Nobody else can be blamed. Prison officers have thrust at them a sea of people who should not be in jail but in hospital: the mentally ill and chronic drug-users make up a staggering proportion of Britain's prisoners. The Home Office has found that 90 per cent of prisoners suffer at least one of five mental disorders: psychosis, severe neurosis, drug dependency, alcoholism or personality disorders. In these circumstances, with nugatory resources, prison officers often perform surprisingly well.

The problems lie primarily with political will and hard cash. To be fair, a small dent has been made in the suicide rate since 2001 by the Government's safer custody policy. This has ensured that almost all prisons have listeners' schemes, where prisoners are designated a fellow prisoner (who has been given training) in whom they can confide. They have guaranteed access to their listener even during "bang up". I have seen a pilot of this at Aylesbury Young Offenders' Institute, and it clearly helped both prisoners to fend off despair.

Yet even listeners' schemes cannot do much to help seriously mentally disturbed people who need more than just to be heard. Often, one prison service source explains, "It can take us months and months to get somebody who is clearly mentally ill into hospital. We had one lad who was slashing himself, screaming all the time - the works. We begged them for months to section him, but there was a shortage of mental health places. In the end, they bloody sectioned him the day he was released. They clearly saw us as a safe holding place, a kind of low-budget mental health centre. It's ridiculous."

David Ramsbotham, the former Chief Inspector of Prisons, explains in his superb memoir Prisongate: The shocking state of Britain's prisons and the need for visionary change, that he was presenting the Government with clear remedies for prison suicides as long ago as 1999. "Untrained staff are not supervised and bad practice too often goes unchecked. During our research, we learned how the number of suicides in the USA had been reduced dramatically... I recommended the adoption of these techniques in Britain. But proven American methods have not been introduced, managerial insight has not improved and the numbers continue to rise."

Where there is a real will and the funds to match it, suicide rates can be drastically reduced. Prisoners are most likely to kill themselves on their first night in jail. In Lancaster Farms Young Offenders' Institute, an outstanding governor, David Waplington, has pioneered an approach which shrinks this threat and has saved the lives of several young men. The institute has dedicated "first night" accommodation, where officers explain the institution routine clearly, and help to deal with any threats the inmate might feel, such as the presence of rival gang members. But to do this, prisons need a reasonable number of staff. Centres for young offenders are more fortunate than adult prisons in this respect, because they are legally required to receive more money.

If the Government wants to raise the cash for high-quality prisons which educate and heal rather than drive prisoners to rage and despair, then the answer is simple. Return our prisons to the numbers they had under that notorious softie Margaret Thatcher, and you automatically double the amount that can be spent on each prisoner. This would be the beginning (although only the beginning) of the transformation needed in our prisons.

Jails are currently the trash bin for all of Britain's political failings: lack of social mobility, the madness of criminalising drugs, and - most pointedly - the delusion that we can have high-quality public services without spending proper sums on them. We can no more have prisons on the cheap than hospitals or schools. The Government is finally turning around chronic underinvestment in health and education - but prisoners are still waiting, festering in packed cells for days on end. In the circumstances, can anybody really be shocked that so many prisoners opt out by making a noose?