Legislation urgently needed to end ‘death toll’ of prison suicides

A prison officer checking on a cell at HMP Wandsworth. Pic by Andy Aitchison from Proof magazine

Legislation will be required to confront the dramatic rise in self-inflicted deaths in prison, a cross-party group of MPs and peers has advised the next government.

Parliament’s joint committee on human rights proposed a range of new policies, including a statutory duty on the secretary of state to specify and ensure a minimum level of staffing in each prison. In a report summarising their inquiry so far into mental health and deaths in prison, the committee also proposed a mechanism which ensures the Secretary of State’s accountability to Parliament for issues of overcrowding.

MPs and peers called for legislation to include a prescribed legal limit to the time a prisoner can be kept in their cell each day, and for young people in prison and prisoners with mental health issues to be assigned a key worker and designated free phone calls to a specific family member or friend.

There were 119 self-inflicted deaths behind bars in 2016. This included a concerning rise in suicides within the female estate – up from five in 2015 to 12 in 2016.

Harriet Harman, the chair of the joint committee, argued that legislation was necessary to ensure that numerous examples of research, reports and policy proposals on the issue did not continue to go ignored.

Harman said: ‘The introduction of legislation would do something that should have been done a long time ago, but that is now urgent, which is to end the death toll of people with mental health conditions who take their own lives in our prisons.’

The committee initially hoped that the Prisons and Courts Bill would provide an opportunity to put in place such legislative changes. The bill, however, was dropped to make way for the June 8 election. ‘If similar legislation is brought forward by the Government in the next Parliament, we hope amendments along the lines we intended will be proposed, even if our successor Committee has not been appointed by then,’ the committee wrote:

The report comes days after the release of Ministry of Justice statistics which showed that the rate of self-inflicted deaths had more than doubled since 2013, with incidents of self-harm also up by 24%.

 

Profile photo of Piers Barber About Piers Barber
Piers is presently working for a charity which promotes children's rights. He was online editor at Not Shut Up, a magazine celebrating prisoner creativity

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