Sharp rise in prison self-harm and suicide sees chief inspector demand independent inquiry

Chief inspectorate warns ‘repeated failings’ have led to more deaths in custody and says only way to improve situation is to place ‘significant independent scrutiny’ on prison service

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Tuesday 09 July 2019 16:29 BST
Mitie, the private firm contracted by the Home Office to manage Harmondsworth and Colnbrook removal centres, has written to the department asking that testing becomes available as a matter of routine for detainees
Mitie, the private firm contracted by the Home Office to manage Harmondsworth and Colnbrook removal centres, has written to the department asking that testing becomes available as a matter of routine for detainees (AFP/Getty)

The prisons watchdog has called for an independent investigation into suicide and self-harm across jails in England and Wales as inmate self-inflicted deaths surged over the course of a year.

Chief inspector Peter Clarke said it was “obviously unacceptable” that, despite warnings, “repeated failings” had led to more deaths in custody, and suggested the only way to improve the situation was to subject the prison service to “significant independent scrutiny”.

His annual report revealed levels of self-harm were “disturbingly high” and that self-inflicted deaths had increased to 83 from 72 in the previous year, following a considerable drop between 2016 and 2018.

Mr Clarke said in some jails there was no effective strategy to reducing self-harm, describing a visit to one prison where numerous cell bells – designed for inmates to indicate they need emergency help – were being ignored by officers.

“I said to the senior officer who I was with, ‘Don’t you think that those officers sitting in the office there might like to step out and see what’s going on?’ I found it astonishing and very depressing,” said Mr Clarke.

It comes after a jury inquest found that Andrew Brown, who died on the induction wing of HMP Nottingham in September 2017, had received no help despite pressing his cell bell four times in the hour before putting a ligature around his neck.

Speaking to journalists on Tuesday, Mr Clarke said it was time for an independent inquiry into the service and its safeguarding. “Is any progress going to really be made unless there is a significant independent overview, scrutiny, investigation or inquiry … into what is happening in terms of suicide and self-harm? Are we just going to carry on as we are or are we going to take a serious look at this?” he said.

“In an ideal world it wouldn’t be necessary, but I’m increasingly coming to the view that in fact it is necessary to do something outside the line of management, and outside the prison service, to take an overarching look at this, because it is so serious.”

In his report, the inspectorate also found that the prison service had not been robust enough in its response to the “deluge of drugs” flowing into prisons, which he said was fuelling debt and violence among inmates.

He described living conditions as “appalling”, with reports of rubbish being left lying around and frequent sightings of ​rats, pigeons and cockroaches on the wings. In one case, an inmate was living in a cell in which the blood of another prisoner, who had self-harmed two days previously, had not been cleaned from the floor.

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Richard Burgon MP, Labour’s shadow justice secretary, said the “extremely depressing” state of our prisons had become the norm, blaming “reckless” cuts to staffing and budgets under the Conservative government. “While the chief inspector praises the extraordinary dedication of prison staff, this report makes clear the role of Tory austerity in unleashing this crisis,” he added.

Deborah Coles, director of the charity Inquest, condemned “chronic failures in the systems of accountability”, saying that despite scrutiny recommendations were “systematically ignored”.

“It is unconscionable that there is a self-inflicted death every four days in prison. Self-harm, violence and deaths are an endemic and ever present feature of the prison system. These are the harmful symptoms of the overuse of imprisonment and the impact of dehumanising regimes,” she said.

Following several years of similarly damning annual reports, Mr Clarke said it was time to step up sanctions against failing prisons because efforts to improve the situation had been “disappointingly slow”. He announced the introduction of Independent Reviews of Progress, designed to give ministers an independent assessment of how well failing jails were addressing key inspectorate recommendations.

Justice minister Robert Buckland said: “As the chief inspector says, much of our prison system is well run by staff who show courage and compassion every day – carrying out a challenging job that benefits and protects all of society. But there are clear challenges that remain at many local prisons which is why we have focused our recent efforts and investments there.”

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “Too many people self-harm and take their own lives in prison which is why we have invested £70m in improving their conditions. We’ve also recruited over 4,700 new prison officers in the last two years and introduced the ‘key worker’ scheme which means each prisoner has a dedicated officer for support.

“We’ve given the Samaritans £1.5m for three years to support their dedicated ‘listeners’ scheme, given new training to over 24,000 staff and improved our processes for supporting those at risk of suicide or self-harm. The Prisons and Probation Ombudsman already carries out investigations into every suicide in custody, and prisons implement any recommendations that will help prevent future deaths.”

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