Government failing in duty of care to prisoners as jail sentences lead to poorer health, MPs warn

Record levels of violence and self-harm, poor quality diet and limited time out of cells contributing to 'cycle of deprivation and health inequality', report says

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Thursday 01 November 2018 01:02
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Prison conditions ‘most disturbing ever seen’ with staff now inured to jails not fit for 21st century, watchdog says in damning report

The government is failing in its duty of care towards prisoners, as going to jail has become not only a deprivation of liberty but a “sentence to poorer health or healthcare”, MPs have warned.

A new report by a parliamentary committee found increasingly “unsafe and unsanitary” prison conditions following budget reductions and a loss of prison officers were limiting prisoners’ access to healthcare and their ability to lead healthy lives.

The Health and Social Care Select Committee warned record levels of violence and self-harm, a poor quality diet and limited time out of cells due to staff shortages were contributing to a “cycle of deprivation and health inequality” in jails.

It said prisoners suffered “far worse health” than the general population, with the mortality rate of people in prison 50 per cent higher than the national average.

The report notes that “so-called natural cause deaths too often reflect serious lapses in care” and that “too many prisoners die in custody or shortly after release”.

It comes amid mounting concern over the crisis gripping prisons across England and Wales, with self-harm and violent attacks hitting record levels for the third time in a year last week.

Suicides increased by 12 per cent, from 78 to 87, indicating self-inflicted deaths are on the rise again following a decline following a peak in 2016.

Chair of the committee, Dr Sarah Wollaston MP, said: “A prison sentence is a deprivation of someone’s liberty; not a sentence to poorer health or healthcare. Too many prisons remain unsafe and unsanitary.

“Violence and self-harm is at a record high, with illegal drugs adding to the problems for both prisoners and staff. Poor living conditions, diet and restricted access to healthcare and activity are compounding a cycle of deprivation and health inequality.”

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Rebecca Roberts, head of policy at the charity Inquest, said failure to treat prisoners with decency, humanity and compassion was a “consistent feature” of deaths in prison.

“Findings from inspectorate bodies and post-death investigations repeatedly demonstrate that many deaths in prison are preventable. Recommendations are made time and time again yet are frequently ignored,” she added.

“This is the first time a parliamentary committee has recognised the alarming number of deaths of people after release from prison, and the urgent need for oversight and investigation behind this growing problem."

Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform said it was "impossible" to lead a healthy lifestyle in prisons as they are at present.

"Prisoners cannot get good food. They rarely see daylight or breathe fresh air. There are few opportunities to exercise. Positive relationships are stunted," she said.

“A change in culture is urgently needed to ensure that people in prison can live and work in a healthier environment.”

Dr Miranda Davies, a senior research analyst at the Nuffield Trust, said: “This sobering report sets out clearly why the health and wellbeing of our prison population is everyone’s business.

“As the Committee found, we still know very little about how prisoners’ health compares to that of the general population, with sparse or patchy publicly available data on both the physical and mental health of the prison population in England and Wales.

“This means we are flying blind when it comes to understanding prisoners’ health needs and how to meet them.”

The government has been approached for comment.

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