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Letter: Prison suicides

Sir: The Chief Inspector of Prisons' forthcoming inquiry into prison suicides ("Young man's cell death sparks big jail suicide inquiry", 24 December) is welcome. The inquiry's findings will help to establish why the Prison Service's guidelines on suicide awareness, which in themselves are excellent, are insufficient to prevent over 60 suicides a year.

There are two important changes elsewhere in the criminal justice system which would help to reduce prison suicides. First, the Government must strongly encourage courts to reverse their rapidly increasing use of prison sentences and must reinstate the budget cuts which have reduced prison staffing and regimes. When prisons are severely overstretched, there is a greater risk that they will overlook potentially suicidal prisoners. Restricted regimes can also worsen the depression which drives prisoners to take their own lives.

Second, a breakdown of the 60 self-inflicted deaths in prison in 1995- 96 shows that 47 per cent had a known previous psychiatric history. An extension of psychiatric assessment services at police stations and courts, together with the improved range of hospital and community facilities needed to back them up, is needed to divert more mentally disturbed offenders into health and social care rather than overcrowded jails.



Penal Affairs Consortium

London SW9