MPs this week heard that 12 women took their own lives in prisons last year in an inquiry into mental health in prisons. Deborah Coles, the director of INQUEST, was giving evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights and said most of those women ‘had committed non-violent offences and had mental health problems’.
It was the committee’s fourth session of its inquiry into the rising level of self-inflicted deaths in custody (as reported last week on www.thejusticegap.com here). Levels of suicide in prison are now at a ten-year high, and a prisoner dies by suicide on average every three days. The number of prison suicides has risen exponentially, from 58 people in 2011 to 113 in 2016.
The government’s flagship Prison and Courts Reform Bill is currently going through Parliament following its introduction last month.
Witnesses argued that that understaffing and limited resources in prisons were direct causes of the rise in prison suicides. ‘The rise in self-inflicted deaths directly correlates to the loss of 7,000 prison officers and 500 prison governors,’ Andrea Albutt, president of the Prison Governors Association told MPs.
Mike Trace, chief executive of the Rehabilitation for Addicted Prisoners Trust, talked of the ‘cycle of despair – a cycle where the staff-prisoner ratio is so difficult that everything else is negative’. He recounted stand offs between ‘two officers and 150 prisoners – you’re not going to win that’. The relationship between officers and prisoners had previously been crucial to identifying signs of mental illness, said Mike Rolfe, national chair of the union for Prison, correctional and secure Psychiatric Workers (POA). ‘You haven’t got those personal relationships going on – that’s the real key issue in all of this,’ he added.
Witnesses criticised the lack of resources in prisons not just in terms of failing to provide basic health care and mental health support but also basic communication technologies (phones, computers etc) to enable families to keep in touch with loved ones (an issue flagged up last week by the family of Dean Saunders).
Andrea Albutt identified speakerphones, particularly in remand prisons, which were frequently ‘old and under-invested in’ and often unavailable even for case conferences which, she said, had become a ‘tick-box system’ rather than a time for a prisoner to receive individual support. ‘That is the reality when you have a prison system stretched to breaking point,’ she added.
A number of witnesses addressed the amount of vulnerable people who have been ‘inappropriately’ sent to prison – with 15% of prisoners suffering from mental health issues, according to Andrew Forrester, a senior lecturer in forensic psychiatry at the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust and Institute of Psychiatry.
Lord Keith Bradley, who led a review of the treatment of people with mental health problems in the criminal justice system, told MPs that there was a need for ‘chang[ing] the flow of people away, when appropriate, from custodial sentences… and to do that you need proper investment into community services’. Deborah Coles agreed, arguing that prison was ‘expensive and ineffective’ and backed the use of community services instead of custodial sentencing. ‘Vulnerable, mentally ill people should not go to prison – you need to be healthy and well in order to survive there,’ commented Andrea Albutt.
The committee is specifically looking at the government’s human rights obligations towards vulnerable prisoners. Andrea Albutt argued that for such considerations to be meaningful an environment had to be provided that was ‘safe and decent and meets the needs of any individual that comes through our doors’.
Mike Trace said: ‘Prisoners are in the care of the state and there is a responsibility on the state authority to provide a safe residence.’
Deborah Cole echoed the calls of Dean Saunders’ family from last week. ‘When you look at the obligations of Article 2 (the right to life), the learning of lessons and rectifying of mistakes is at the heart of that obligation,’ she said. ‘We see the same lessons not being learned.’
Eleanor is an aspiring barrister and currently a legal intern with Global Rights Compliance, an organisation committed to enhancing compliance with international human rights standards