08:16, May 05 304 0 theguardian.com

2017-05-05 08:16:02
Government response to UK's soaring prison suicide rate has been pitiful

Record levels of self-harm and suicide in our jails reveal a collapse in mental health support for vulnerable prisoners.

Last year there were 40,161 recorded instances of prisoners harming themselves, almost 8,000 more than 2015. That is almost 800 a week. Suicides reached 119, the highest since records began in 1978. That means a prisoner kills themselves every three days. Labour’s Luciana Berger has described it as “the death penalty by the back door”.

As well as coroners’ inquests and the findings of prison inspectors there have been at least 10 major reports investigating deaths in custody since 1991, including six in the last six years.

Since 2010, according to Full Fact, the number of frontline prison officers has been cut from 19,900 to 14,700 full-time equivalents, as the prison population continues to climb.

This week, parliament’s joint committee on human rights – with members drawn from both the Lords and Commons – rushed out a report on mental health and death in prisons before parliament was dissolved. They have been trying to understand why the deaths have continued despite the endless investigations and government promises to do something. It identifies a series of mutually reinforcing failures behind the mounting toll.

Unforgivably, training for prison officers has been scaled back, leaving many ill equipped to identify and address mental health problems.

There are huge variations in mental health support between prisons, with some unable to provide vital services.

People who are acutely mentally unwell are given short prison sentences instead of community alternatives where they can be cared for more effectively.

Fear among mentally ill prisoners of their prospects on release, such as the chances of getting a job, somewhere to live and continued support, actually increases the risk of self-harm and suicide towards the end of a sentence.

Meanwhile, psychoactive substances such as spice blight prisoner mental health.

The government response is pitiful. It has promised to recruit 2,500 prison officers, far too few for the task and no substitute for the thousands of experienced officers who have been lost. A review of suicides in custody by Lord Harris found that relationships between prisoners and staff were key to managing suicide risk, with experienced officers using “jailcraft” to identify and manage vulnerable prisoners.

The action promised on drones flying in drugs and phones is a glorified publicity stunt that will have a negligible impact.

Research by the Howard League for Penal Reform reveals that suicides are not an unfortunate deviation, but the inevitable outcome of a system that is responding to ever-growing prisoner numbers and too few staff by pursuing a punitive regime that creates precisely the conditions in which poor mental health, self-harm and suicide flourish.

The government has allowed prisons to become dirty, frightening and dangerous. Since 1990 the number of prisoners has almost doubled to around 85,000. Prisoners are routinely locked up virtually the entire day. There is excessive use of solitary confinement and other punishments. Prisons even fail to look after prisoners on the day they arrive, with shortcomings ranging from not telling staff about arrivals to locking someone up for their first night in the segregation block because there happened to be a spare bed.

The revised Incentives and Earned Privileges (pdf) scheme introduced by the Ministry of Justice in 2013 tends to put prisoners with a history of mental health problems on the lowest level of privileges, making it even more difficult for them to cope. The Howard League says this regime undermines precisely the factors that can reduce the risk of suicide, such as involvement in activities, contact with family and spending time with other people.

Prison mental health services are not just having to meet the needs of vulnerable and ill people; they are having to cope with mental illness created and exacerbated by appalling conditions which amount to an abuse of prisoners’ human rights.

In Ireland and the UK, the Samaritans can be contacted free 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

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