09:04, July 05 68 0 theguardian.com

2017-07-05 09:04:03
Prison suicides are soaring. More inmates should be trained to prevent this, as I was

The soaring suicide and self-harming rates in our prisons are reaching crisis levels. Last week’s National Audit Office report confirmed this: in 2016 there were a record 120 self-inflicted prison deaths – a doubling of the number within four years – and more than 40,000 self-harm incidents in English and Welsh prisons. Overstretched staff are simply unable to cope with the extra suicide prevention measures that are needed.

Can officers check the cell observation spy holes of “at-risk” inmates every 10 minutes? Can they do the daily listening and engaging with prisoners that used to be required under the personal officer scheme? Do they respond swiftly to emergency call-button signals during the night from cells? Anecdotal evidence suggest these tasks are being neglected.

It is now universally accepted that George Osborne’s expenditure cuts in the prison budget, which resulted in a 30% reduction in officers and staff, went dangerously deep. Why three successive justice secretaries – Ken Clarke, Chris Grayling and Michael Gove – did not warn and fight against them more effectively as a Willie Whitelaw or a Douglas Hurd would surely have done, remains a disappointing mystery. But at least Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) is now struggling to repair the damage by recruiting 2,500 better paid new officers, a process that will take a year or two.

In the meantime, one of the best suicide prevention methods is the one now operated by inmates known as the Listener scheme. They are Samaritan-trained prisoners who are recognised in many jails as the go-to peer mentors when rumours circulate about a fellow inmate who is talking about “topping” himself.

I understand this scheme because I was a Listener in HMP Standford Hill for four months during my prison sentence for perjury in 1999-2001. After some common-sense training from the Kent branch of the Samaritans, I was appointed and identified as the B wing Listener.

I would get tipoffs from fellow prisoners and officers that so-and-so might be a potential self-harmer or about to try to kill themselves. Sometimes a despairing prisoner would make a direct approach because of a suggestion from a cell neighbour: “Go and see Jonno, he’s our Listener.”

All I did was to lend a sympathetic ear, follow the Samaritan guidelines, and sometimes refer the at-risk individual to the wing office, the chaplain, or the prison medical team. I think I calmed a few people down with gentle mentoring that may have prevented one or two tragedies.

The Listener scheme and the Samaritans charity that runs it need to be better resourced and promoted. This would cost peanuts and save lives.

And prisoners can be empowered to help in other ways too. Every wing in every prison has three or four “sensibles” – usually older men who can be trusted to act responsibly. Why not assign to them the duty of checking cell observation spy holes every 10 minutes?

The NAO report is admirable in its analysis of the facts. But it reverts to platitudes and statements of the obvious when suggesting remedies. Of course its chief, Amyas Morse, is right to say that “improving the mental health care of those in prison will require a step change in effort and resources”. But this year, while the various Whitehall factions from the Treasury, Ministry of Justice, Department of Health argue over a strategy – let alone decide whose budget is going to pay for it – 2016’s record-breaking figures will probably be exceeded.

HMPPS has been working hard to tackle the crisis. It deserves credit for creating safer custody officer teams in every prison with new procedures and hotlines designed to help prevent suicides. Nevertheless the weaknesses in the system remain endemic.

Another small charity, Prisoners’ Penfriends, organises trained volunteers (many of them retired magistrates and teachers) who correspond regularly on a carefully supervised basis with more than 200 prisoners a year. These inmates tend to be the loneliest long-sentence men, such as lifers and sex offenders who have been abandoned by their families. Penfriends who write caringly to them help their mental equilibrium.

Even more importantly, as soon as a prisoner’s letter hints at suicidal or self-harming thoughts, the charity – which has corresponded with 23,000 prisoners since it started in 2004 – swiftly contacts the safer custody team in the relevant jail. Passing on such early warning signals of distress, self-harm or suicide is believed to have saved many lives. But today this overloaded charity is inadequately resourced. Surely a tiny contribution could be made from the Ministry of Justice’s £4bn budget?

Unfortunately this is a field in which there are no magical routes to success. As a frequent visitor to prisons I believe the safer custody teams are doing their best. And within HMPPS, more could be done to speed up the transfer of mentally ill prisoners to secure hospitals: only a third of such inmates are transferred within the target period of 14 days.

Sadly, mental illness is such a huge problem in prisons and there are no quick fixes. But the more that prisoners on the inside, and experienced charities on the outside, are involved, the more lives can be saved.