The inhumanity of this failing system

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The latest spate of suicides in our prisons is a result of the failure of successive governments to reform our penal system. Twelve inmates have committed suicide in the space of 12 days this month. The latest case was that of 31-year-old Nicky Taffe, who was serving 14 years for rape. He was found hanging in his cell in Pentonville prison on Wednesday morning.

The latest spate of suicides in our prisons is a result of the failure of successive governments to reform our penal system. Twelve inmates have committed suicide in the space of 12 days this month. The latest case was that of 31-year-old Nicky Taffe, who was serving 14 years for rape. He was found hanging in his cell in Pentonville prison on Wednesday morning.

Anne Owers, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, has made it perfectly clear what is behind this trend. As she pointed out yesterday, inexcusable overcrowding is at the root of the problem. Thanks to the Government's "tough" policy on crime, an unmanageable number of new prisoners is entering the system. This, in turn, means more inmates are being moved around the country. Overcrowding makes it almost impossible for staff to assess those who might be at risk from suicide or self-harm.

A high turnover compounds the problem. The result is a spiralling number of deaths behind bars. There were 95 prison suicides in England and Wales last year. This equalled the highest year hitherto on record - 2002. All the evidence indicates that ministers do not have a grip on the problem.

Our prisons are ill equipped to provide inmates with the medical treatment they so often need. It is estimated that 80 per cent of new arrivals have a drug habit. Many also have mental illnesses. Yet there is a chronic shortage of psychiatric services and secure hospital beds. Drug rehabilitation resources are massively overstretched. The situation is so bad that if a prisoner comes in clean, there is a high likelihood that he or she will emerge with a drug habit. This all contributes to the desperate - and increasingly lethal - atmosphere in the nation's jails.

It is often the most vulnerable individuals - rather than hardened criminals - who suffer most in the chaos of the system. In 2004, 13 women committed suicide in prison. Despite making up only 6 per cent of the prison population, females accounted for 11 per cent of suicides. A disturbing number of children are dying in young offenders' institutions, too.

Last December, Parliament's Joint Committee on Human Rights accused the Government of neglecting its "duty of care" towards Britain's prisoners. It was a stinging and authoritative indictment of a failing system. But no moves have been made to improve the situation since then. We still have the highest prison population in Europe. The Government is still devising new ways to send people to jail. Schemes to rehabilitate criminals within the community are dismissed out of hand. Until we adopt a more rational and humane approach to our penal system, we can expect the numbers dying behind bars to continue growing.

Comments