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List of prison deaths to be published in move ‘from secrecy to openness’

The ombudsman said weekly publications will improve transparency, while one prisons expert welcomed the move ‘from secrecy to openness’

Amy-Clare Martin
Crime Correspondent
Thursday 22 February 2024 18:08 GMT
List of deaths is prison will be published weekly for the first time
List of deaths is prison will be published weekly for the first time (Getty)

Details of deaths in Britain’s prisons will now be published weekly in a “truly momentous” improvement in openness and transparency. 

The prisons and probation ombudsman (PPO) will post weekly updates identifying those who have died, the prison where they were being held and the date of their death. 

Previously, details of those who have died inside prisons have not been released until an inquest has been held – which can take months or even years. 

The move comes after self-inflicted deaths in prison soared by nearly a quarter last year, according to Ministry of Justice figures. Of 311 deaths in prison during 2023, 93 deaths were recorded as self-inflicted – a rise of 22 per cent on the previous year. 

Self-harm incidents have also soared, with one recorded every seven minutes inside the nation’s prisons. Overall there were 67,773 self-harm incidents in the 12 months to September 2023, up 17 per cent compared to the previous year.

Announcing the change, ombudsman Adrian Usher said he felt it was important to improve transparency and improve public confidence in investigations.

He told The Independent: “Since I joined the PPO, it has been my goal to be more transparent about our work and in our investigations.

“I decided to announce the names of deaths we are investigating in order to be more transparent, and to acknowledge the person behind the death at the start of our investigation.

“We also feel that if we did not name the individual, this might be profoundly upsetting for the families of all living inmates at that institution until they are reassured it is not their loved one.”

He said the PPO will ensure next of kin has been notified before details are shared, adding: “If we get feedback that the announcement is too soon, then we will seek to delay it.

“My hope is that the public will have more confidence in our investigations and feel reassured that we are investigating circumstances around deaths straight away.”

On Thursday, the first list of recent deaths was published on the ombudsman’s website – revealing the watchdog is investigating six deaths which took place during the week until 22 February.

They include two deaths at HMP Littlehey, a category C prison for male sex offenders in Cambridgeshire, and further deaths at HMP Lindholme, Serco-operated HMP Fosse Way, HMP Whatton and HMP Northumberland.

Further details of the investigation into each fatal incident will continue to be published after inquests have concluded.

Mark Leech, editor of The Prisons Handbook for England and Wales, welcomed the move “from secrecy to openness” – however the charity Inquest has raised concerns over the impact on bereaved families.

Mr Leech, who wrote a scathing editorial on the failure of the PPO to disclose details of those who have died in custody in the 2023 edition of the annual reference book, said: “Make no mistake, this change of ombudsman policy, moving from secrecy to openness in disclosing the details of those who have died inside our prisons within a week of their deaths, is truly momentous.

“That shocking failure to acknowledge the public’s right to know who, where and when someone had died in the custody of [the] state shortly after it happened, has been an issue I have raised with every prisons ombudsman since 2010 – all without any success, until now.

“This abrupt about turn will rightly have a welcome and vitally important effect on the perceived independence of the prisons ombudsman, and it shows respect too for bereaved families who, since the office of prisons ombudsman was created exactly 30 years ago, have been treated with an appalling lack of respect.”

Inquest, which supports bereaved families, said the move is welcome but raised questions over the impact of rapid publication on grieving families who may not have held a funeral.

Spokesperson Lucy McKay told The Independent: “Transparency following deaths in prison is vital to ensure that the public are aware of the fatal consequences of our failing criminal justice system.

“The regular publication of information on individual deaths and the prisons they are taking place in is welcome but must be balanced with the needs of the bereaved people.

“Behind every person who has died in prison are countless bereaved family members and friends who are responding to the loss of a loved one.”

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