By Graham Durcan
In 2016 there were 120 apparent suicides in English and Welsh prisons, the highest number ever recorded. Suicides had been rising year on year up to this point, with 84 in 2014 and 95 in 2015. So the news in 2017 that the number of prisoners who had apparently died by suicide had dropped to 77 was good news and welcomed.
Seemingly, something was happening in the prison estate to address the dramatic rise in suicide deaths and one hopes that this can be sustained and further reduce the tragedy of prison suicide. Does this reduction in suicide amongst prisons mean that prisons are becoming safer places? Possibly, but not all the news is good news.
Any suicide is one too many and therefore unacceptable. We should work towards achieving zero suicides. But suicides in prison are, and I use this phrase guardedly, relatively rare events. They are of course ‘a’ barometer of prison safety, but as relatively rare events they are probably not the best barometer. In the region of two thirds of English and Welsh prisons had no recorded suicide deaths in 2017. One prison (HMP Nottingham) is reported as having had six.
Any suicide is one too many and therefore unacceptable. We should work towards achieving zero suicides.
Other, and perhaps more useful, gauges of the safety of the prison custody environments are much more widespread and numerous events. These are violence and assaults (both prisoner-on-prisoner and prisoner-on-staff), and the incidence of self-harm. Both of these are likely to be much more common than the statistics indicate, for example one can expect not all incidents of prisoner-on-prisoner assaults to be reported and likewise not all self-harm will come to the attention of staff. But, disturbingly, the reported statistics for both violence and self-harm reached record highs in 2017.
The latest available statistics indicate that in the 12 months up to September 2017, assaults had risen 12% on 2016 to 28,165 in total. 20,346 of these were prisoner-on-prisoner assaults, a rise of 9% and within these a rise in 11% of serious prisoner-on-prisoner assaults; 7,828 were prisoner-on-staff assaults, a startling rise of 22%, and within these a 3% rise in serious assaults in staff. Self-harm incidence in the 12 months leading to September 2017 rose 12% to 42,837, the highest ever recorded.
The reported statistics for both violence and self-harm reached record highs in 2017
Assault and self-harm statistics reveal that prisons are not safe environments for either prisoners or staff, and reviewing previous years’ statistics reveals that English and Welsh prisons have become more unsafe each year in recent times.
The reasons for these changes in safety are multiple and complex. For example prisoners typically have multiple and complex needs, poor mental wellbeing being just one. Prisons are overcrowded and have been for over two decades. Prisoners generally spend more time locked in cells and less time in meaningful activity. But the significant reductions in staff since 2010 (frontline staff reduced by 22% and the prison population rose) has to have played a significant role in this. This coupled with the fact that many of those staff who have left the prison service were those with the most experience and ‘jail craft’. Prisons are recruiting, but new recruits inevitably will not have the experience and know-how of the more experienced staff who are now lost to the prison service.
English and Welsh prisons have become more unsafe each year in recent times... the significant reductions in staff since 2010 has to have played a significant role in this
The reduction in suicide has to be acknowledged, but much more needs to be done to ensure prisons become safe places for both those people sent by the courts to reside in them and for the staff who work in them. Our joint inquiry with the Howard League set out some of the vital changes we found were needed to make that happen. Now is the time to start making those changes to prevent more loss of life, injury and trauma in our prisons.
 The Howard League for Penal Reform report that 38 investigations in prisoner deaths in 2017 have not yet been completed (source).