09:33, May 02 323 0 theguardian.com

2017-05-02 09:33:03
Ministers 'should have legal duty to combat rise in prison suicides'

The next government should introduce legislation to “end the shocking rise in self-harm and suicides in prisons”, a cross-party group of MPs and peers has reported.

Parliament’s joint committee on human rights says the steady rise in self-inflicted deaths from 58 in 2010 to 119 in 2016 in prisons across England and Wales means it is now time to place a legal duty on the justice secretary to specify a minimum ratio of prison officers to prisoners in each jail.

In the meantime, MPs and peers on the committee also suggest that free phone calls to a designated family member or friend should be provided to young offenders and prisoners with mental health issues and at risk of suicide..

Their report follows the publication last week of official statistics showing that self-harm incidents rose by 24% in the past year to a record high of 40,161. They also showed that the record number of prison suicides included 10 women taking their own lives – far higher than the usual grim toll of two to three a year.

The only respite within the grim figures lay in the fact that the most recent figures for the 12 months to March show there were 113 deaths, a slight dip compared with the previous figure for the 12 months to December of 119.

Harriet Harman, the chair of the joint committee on human rights, 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.”

She said that successive governments had welcomed reports and proposals and had changed policy and issued new guidelines, but nothing had changed, except the death toll, which went on rising.

“In 1991, we had the Woolf report; in 2007, the Corston report; in 2009, the Bradley report; and in 2015, the Harris report. It is not that we do not know what needs to be done; it is just that we have not done it. We must recognise reality,” said Harman.

“There is no point in having more reviews, new policies or new guidance; we must make sure that the changes we all know are needed actually happen in practice. For that to happen, we need a legal framework to be introduced in the next parliament that will ensure that the necessary changes take place because they are required by statute.”

The report from MPs and peers recommends that there should be a prescribed legal maximum of time that a prisoner can be kept in their cell, a way of making the justice secretary accountable for prison overcrowding, and way of maintaining a specified level of staffing in each prison.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists welcomed their approach: “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. There are currently far too few for the high number of people in prison,” said Prof Pamela Taylor, chair of the college’s forensic faculty.

She said that the courts were repeatedly missing opportunities to divert those with serious mental health problems away from prison with only 391 people receiving a community-based mental health treatment order last year – nearly half the number 10 years ago.

“The prisons and courts bill’s progress was stopped by the snap election, and the Royal College of Psychiatrists calls on the next government to introduce legislation to achieve real criminal justice reform and alleviate what is now a mental health crisis in prisons,” she said.

In Ireland and the UK, the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14. Hotlines in other countries can be found here