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Calls for urgent action as deaths in prisons hit record levels

Charity accuses government of failing to improve prison safety

Matt Mathers
Friday 28 January 2022 08:18 GMT
(Getty Images)

The government has been urged to change its "harmful and dangerous” prison system after the number of deaths among inmates hit record levels.

There were 371 prison deaths in England and Wales in the 12 months to December 2021, new data from the Ministry of Justice has revealed.

This is up from 318 in the previous 12 months and the highest number since the government began recording figures in 1978.

Out of the 371 deaths, the MoJ said 250 were from “natural causes” - a rise of 12 per cent in a year, state-related death charity Inquest said.

Some 86 deaths were self-inflicted, an increase of 28 per cent from the previous 12 months.

Meanwhile, 34 deaths were recorded as "other", four were described as "non-natural" and 30 await classification. There was also one homicide.

Six of the overall deaths were in women’s prisons - three of which were deemed to be from natural causes, while three await classification.

Younger inmates were most likely to die self-inflicted deaths, with 69 per cent of deaths of those aged between 18 and 39 categorised this way in 2021.

Inquest said that longer-term data shows that, even without including Covid-related deaths, this year and the past five years have seen the highest death rates in prisons.

Between when the pandemic began in March 2020 to the end of 2021, the charity states that 177 people in prison died within 28 days of a positive Covid test - 98 of these in 2021.

Inquest said its casework and monitoring also shows the highest number of self-inflicted and "non-natural" deaths took place in HMP Wandsworth and HMP Altcourse.

Deborah Coles, director of Inquest, said: “This time last year we said: 'We fear the worst is yet to come.' Sadly, we were right.

"Despite what could have been learned from the first wave of the pandemic, the government allowed yet more people to die in prison. But the pandemic alone cannot explain away this record level of deaths."

Ms Coles added: "These statistics represent the serious consequences of highly restrictive regimes on people’s mental and physical health. They also reflect the continuation of a harmful and dangerous prison system, and criminal justice policies which use prison as the response to social problems.

“In the short-term urgent action is needed to ensure people in prison have access to healthcare and adequate support. In the long term, we need a dramatic reduction of the prison population and more investment in radical community alternatives.

"The government’s latest white paper on prisons continues to ignore the evidence and favour building more prison places and allowing these needless deaths and harms.”

A Prison Service spokesperson said: “Our decisive action has kept prisoners safe in difficult circumstances, with video calls and in-cell education rolled out in recognition of tough but necessary restrictions.

“We continue to improve mental health support – with more than 25,000 staff trained in suicide and self-harm prevention so far, while a new taskforce is dedicated to reducing high levels of self-harm in women’s prisons.”

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