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Prisons increasingly failing those with mental health issues


    Recent figures published by the Ministry of Justice show a worrying increase in the number of incidents involving assault, self-harm and self-inflicted deaths in prisons.

    By Ali Cloak

It has been widely publicised that prison services are increasingly under-resourced and under-funded and the MoJ’s latest figures suggest this is having a marked impact, with prisons becoming much less safe, especially for those with mental health problems.


Report Findings:

The Ministry of Justice recently published its ‘Safety in Custody’ report which sets out the latest statistics on the number of deaths, self-harm incidents and assaults in prison custody in England and Wales.

The latest report included some very worrying statistics:

  • Deaths in prison up 38% overall
  • Self-inflicted deaths up 32%
  • Self-harm incidents up 23%
  • Assault incidents up 31%
  • Prisoner on prisoner assaults up 28%
  • Assaults on staff up 40%

The figures seem to be evidence of a prison system which is failing to cope with demand.

Of a total of 354 deaths, 119 were self-inflicted – this is over double the number seen in 2012. This alarming increase in self-inflicted deaths confirms the widely held belief that prisons are poorly placed to manage those with mental health problems.


Why are the figures so high?

There are a number of factors which are attributable to the increase in the numbers of deaths, self harm incidents and assaults in prisons in England and Wales.

There has been a 29% drop in the number of full time equivalent staff in prisons since 2010. Having fewer members of staff means that prisoners are under less supervision and vulnerable people who are at high risk of self harm are less likely to get the supervision they require.

Sub-optimal staffing levels also create risk for higher numbers of assaults since prison mood and bullying cannot be as closely monitored. This is reflected in the much higher levels of assault incidents, now at a record high. Prison officers have raised concerns about their own safety in light of the current staffing/budget issues, and this in turn may lead to worse staff retention rates, which is perhaps unsurprising given that assaults on staff are up by 40% since 2014.

Mental health issues are one of the biggest factors. 72% of men and 70% of women sentenced to immediate custody suffer from 2 or more mental health disorders. However, Police Custody Officers are generally not appropriately trained to deal with prisoners with mental health difficulties.

INQUEST, the leading charity which works to support bereaved families in inquests reported that “prisons are harsh environments characterised by impoverished, punitive, isolating and controlling regimes that intensify levels of anxiety and exacerbate mental ill-health”.

INQUEST argue that prisons are therefore inherently unsuitable to care for 70-72% of prison population and recommend that secure mental health units should be utilised for those sentenced who are mentally unfit for prison. However, current financial provision makes this far from a reality in England and Wales.

More needs to be done to ensure prisoner safety. With records numbers of deaths and self harm incidents this is a concerning upward trend and something that with more budget cuts and fewer staff looks only set to get worse.

The latest statistics from the MoJ are incredibly worrying and are, unfortunately, reflected in the increased number of families I am contacted by in relation to the unexpected death of a loved one in a prison setting.

If you need advice on the death of a loved one in prison, or any other aspect of an inquest or fatal claim, then please get in touch with me or another member of the team.


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