There has been great interest, in the press and in parliament, about the increasing numbers of suicide and self-harm within the prison sector. Recent studies have included:

  • preventing the deaths of women in prison working paper
  • preventing prison suicide: staff perspectives
  • safety in custody statistics bulletin published by the Ministry of Justice
  • mental health in prisons from the National Audit Office
  • annual PPO report 2016/2017

The Government has also commissioned an independent review on police custody deaths, to be conducted by the Rt Hon Dame Elish Angiolini. The report was due to be published in summer 2016; however the release date is still awaited.

The Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (‘PPO’) found major themes from his investigations into self-inflicted deaths which required action, which included the pervasiveness of mental ill health and an epidemic of new psychoactive drugs.

The problems that have been highlighted as contributing to the difficulties in preventing suicides in prisons can largely be summarised as follows:

  • staff numbers decreasing
  • budget and staff training cuts
  • a dramatic increase in the prison population

The impact of staff shortages leads to prisoners spending longer in ‘lock down’ in their cells and therefore less time meaningfully occupied, but it also means patients miss health care appointments due to a shortage of escorts.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists considered that ‘without adequate numbers of well-trained prison officers, psychiatrists who work in prisons cannot even physically access their patients let alone hope to provide adequate mental health services’.

A failure to implement recommendations made after previous suicides, as well as inadequate training in the prison’s suicide prevention procedures and record keeping issues are some of the problems identified by coroners at inquests around the country as well as the PPO in his recent report.

The recent case of R (Scarfe & Ors) -v- Governor HMP Woodhill & SoS Justice [2017] EWHC 1194 (Admin), was brought by families of the deceased prisoners at HMP Woodhill on the basis that public law powers should be used to ensure that repeat failings do not occur and for prevention of future deaths (PFD) reports to be appropriately actioned. Whilst the court found, in this case, that the identified failings were by individuals, rather than being caused by the system, it is important that organisations involved in the provision of care within the prison system are aware that similar cases may be brought in the future. Trends should therefore be identified as a matter of urgency within all prison organisations and appropriate action taken.

Harriett Harman, the chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, has said that the time has come to introduce a legal framework in the next parliament that will ensure the necessary changes take place. She said the 1991 Woolf report, the 2007 Corston report, the 2009 Bradley report and the 2015 Harris report all highlight what needs to be done, yet nothing has been implemented. It remains to be seen however as to whether, and when, a legal framework will be implemented, and what this would look like.