04:32, May 28 103 0 theguardian.com

2020-05-28 04:32:04
Alarm over five suicides in six days at prisons in England and Wales

Five suicides have been recorded in prisons in England and Wales in just six days, the Guardian understands, fuelling fears that a highly restrictive regime in place to combat the spread of the coronavirus is having a devastating impact on inmates.

There have been 16 self-inflicted deaths recorded behind bars since the lockdown conditions were introduced on 23 March. As part of the measures, prison visits were suspended and inmates were placed on a limited regimen with less than an hour spent out of cells each day.

While the number of self-inflicted deaths between 23 March to 21 May is not the highest on record for such a period, five inmates are believed to have taken their own lives in the last six days of it, prompting alarm among penal reform campaigners. In 2019 there were 80 self-inflicted deaths recorded – fewer than two a week on average.

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) expressed condolences to the families of those who died and urged caution over speculating on causes of death.

Deborah Coles, the director of Inquest, a charity concerned with deaths in custody, said: “These deaths point to the frustration and despair of those faced with inhumane living conditions and highly restrictive regimes. 

“Indefinite solitary confinement is the harrowing reality for men, women and children across the prison estate, with harmful consequences to both mental and physical health. Unless radical action is taken immediately we fear the worst is yet to come as the impact of the virus is felt throughout the prison estate.

“The government must show political courage and rapidly reduce the prison population. This course of action can best protect the lives of both prisoners and staff.”

The most recent self-inflicted deaths were recorded in five prisons: four in the adult male estate – at Bure in Norfolk, Risley in Cheshire, Dartmoor in Devon, and Cardiff – and one at Aylesbury young offender institution (YOI) in Buckinghamshire. The prisons and probation ombudsman has been informed.

Among the deceased was Lenny Crawt, 19, who was found dead in his cell at Aylesbury YOI on 16 May. He was convicted last year of murdering a 48-year-old man in 2016. Crawt, who was 16 at the time of the killing, was brought up in care owing to concerns about parental neglect, moving through nine counties in eight years.

David Lammy, the shadow justice secretary, said: “The unusual spike in deaths in custody raises serious questions over whether the severe emergency Covid-19 regime in prisons is becoming a threat to the welfare of prisoners.

“Labour has been calling on the Ministry of Justice for a roadmap that allows for the relaxation of some of the strictest measures, while preventing the spread of the virus through testing, tracing, PPE and, where safe, the government’s own early release scheme. It is not safe or acceptable for the government to leave prisoners isolated in cells and throw away the key until the pandemic is over.”

Public Health England (PHE) modelling has shown the spread of infection and rate of deaths in prison has been much lower than expected. To date, 22 prisoners and nine staff are known to have died.

The containment of the outbreak in prisons has been driven by a highly restrictive regime involving increased time in cells, segregation and a ban on all visits – a regime that PHE has said will need to remain in place until April next year.

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons recently found that inmates of some prisons were spending 30 minutes a day out of their cells.

The government has been urged to release more inmates under the end of custody temporary release (ECTR) scheme announced in early April. The MoJ said up to 4,000 prisoners who were within two months of their release date and had passed a risk assessment were eligible for the scheme. But as of 15 May, only 57 had been released.

Frances Crook, the chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “Tens of thousands of people in prison are being held in overcrowded conditions or extreme isolation. It is neither humane nor sustainable, and it is taking its toll. We need to see a clear plan out of mass solitary confinement, to save lives and give purpose.”

A Prison Service spokesperson said: “Our condolences are with the family and friends of the prisoners who have died. It would be inappropriate to speculate on any cause of death which is a matter for the coroner.

“The health and welfare of prisoners is a priority. That’s why we made the difficult decision to temporarily limit prisoners’ daily routines in response to the outbreak of coronavirus in the UK, and moved quickly to introduce measures such as family video calls to minimise the impact of spending more time in cells.”

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