Prison Suicide is a Political Disgrace

I have written a number of times about the failure of both the Conservatives and Labour parties to fully understand, recognise and support those who work in prisons preferring to adopt a “I’m tougher than you” posturing attitude rather than develop sensible and achievable policies.

The latest information that suicide – or what are now commonly termed ‘Death in Custody’ – rates in UK prisons are now at the highest level since records began in 1978 is another indication of the failure of not only this but successive Governments.

All credit to the Labour Peer, Lady Corston whose 2007 report into care within the female prison estate which led to a decrease because of the safety measures introduced.

With 119 ‘Suicide Deaths in Custody ’ recorded across prisons in England and Wales in 2017 it would be easy to forget that this does not included the number of prisoners who die whilst in prison from natural causes or those that are murdered whilst in custody.

With the suicide rates rising every year amounting to one every three days in 2017 you would expect the alarm bells should be ringing in the Ministry of Justice

Perhaps a statistic from 2017 that should be sending the Ministry of Justice into a complete meltdown is that in 2017 there was over 40,000 recorded instances of prisoners harming themselves.

Data and statistics eh!

Don’t you just love it?

What of course the data doesn’t show is the human impact and trauma experienced by those including not only prison officers but all staff working in prisons who find and have to deal with the aftermath of a suicide or self-harm.

It’s not only having to deal with the ‘victim’ at the time but then having to go through the whole coroner and police investigation process which also includes having to deal with the family of the ‘victim’.

I should say that in most cases families are very understanding and sympathetic towards staff recognising that they have a difficult job and that they have and always do their very best to prevent suicides.

There are however families who take the opposite position and heap blame on prison staff for ‘failing to protect’ and prevent the individual from taking their own life.

The reality of course as a forensic psychologists I worked with once told me is,

“If someone is determined to end their life there is nothing you can do about it”.

Very true but it doesn’t help staff who will always question whether or not they did everything they could to prevent a death.

The other group of people that every suicide affects is the prisoners who are never ever considered and yet it is common that they are the ones who raise concerns about the change in behaviour of those who finally commit suicide.

One of the saddest things about this whole issue is the way politicians – usually from the opposition – latch on to self inflicted death in custody and use it to gain a political advantage.

No greater example is perhaps when Labour MP Luciana Berger described the suicide rates as being “the death penalty by the back door” without any thought as to the impact such a callous remark has on the families or prison staff

Perhaps those who would use suicides in prisons for political advantage should reflect on just how great a job those same staff must be doing in preventing more of the 40,000 self harming prisoners from dying.

What politicians don’t seem – or don’t consider – to realise is that by its the very nature the prisoners held in custody incidents of self-harm and suicide will be proportionally higher than in the rest of the population.

Whilst politicians argue about what prisons are really for and make outlandish and quite frankly ridiculous claims that they will be tougher without explaining how their policies will address the major issues it is the staff that face the problems.

Statistics, as most people now know are only as valid and reliable as the people who are using them and when talking about the prison system it is clear that ALL politicians use them for their own ends and quite frankly ‘don’t always tell the truth’.

What is not in doubt is that mental health and personality disorder problems amongst male prisoners is in the region of 60% which means of a current population of 80,000 prisoners 48,000 have complex problems.

What the latest suicide data indicates is that warnings from Governors, Senior Managers and Staff that Government policy has weakened the ability of those working in the system to deliver a safe and secure environment for prisoners has been ignored.

So who is responsible for the failures that have led to the increase in suicides, murders and self-inflicted injuries in the prisons in England and Wales?

“The fault and more importantly the responsibility lies squarely on the doorstep of successive Home Secretaries and Ministers of Justice over the past 20 years”.

Those working in the system are constantly working to prevent tragedies from happening but they are doing it against a background of massively reduced staffing, including specialist staffing such as probation officers and forensic psychologists.

They are also working in a system of what is expected from prisons are almost non-existent simply because everything is given the same priority.

Which of course allows the politicians to wriggle off the hook whenever anything goes wrong because they can simply say it’s the prison that has failed?

It is the ultimate political cowardice based on the almost insurmountable position of being able to pass the blame.

It is also why the current National Offender Management System (NOMS) and along with it the prisoner rehabilitation programme isn’t working.

It is why reoffending rates are stubbornly high and why incidents of suicides and self-harming have continued to rise.

Through all of their peacock posturing the impression they give is that prisons are simply places where huge numbers of miscreants should be contained for the period handed down by the courts.

Under pressure they of course concede that prisoners should also be held with a reasonable level of humanity and decency.

If that is all they want from the prison system then why not say so, scrap all of the nonsensical targets and play into the hands of the ‘lock them up and throw away the key’ brigade who will see deaths in custody as some kind of perverted positive result.

With the high numbers of prisoners suffering from mental or/and personality disorders, combined of course with the high level of drug/alcohol dependency and related health issues surely prisons should be delivering more.

After all this is a publicly funded system that is costing the tax payer over £3billion a year so shouldn’t the public at the very least expect prisons to rehabilitate prisoners and be accountable for at least contributing to reducing reoffending?

Prisons are in the majority of cases very safe for prisoners and have systems and processes in place to protect them – not the least from themselves – whilst in custody.

It is the fundamentals of having a safe and secure prison in which the majority of inmates are ‘model prisoners’.

The problem is that the system diminishes rather than promote rehabilitation – or what I recently heard referred to on the radio as Transformational Rehabilitation – whatever that may be.

The fact is that without the correct policies prisons will continue to fail and where desperation and mental illness becomes overwhelming it will lead either deliberately or inadvertently to suicide and a continuing increase in deaths in custody.

I have no doubt that following the obligatory investigation after every death in custody the prison service “learns” lessons from every such event.

Their learning would be improved if the Members of Parliament at the Ministry of Justice and those who have ambitions to be in the Ministry in the future decided what they want prisons to achieve and then support them to deliver the outcomes.

Sadly, I have little confidence that they will and that suicide and self-harm incidents will continue to increase.

It is impossible to understand what prisoners with mental health problems experience, and I in no way believe that it is an excuse not to sentence them to a period in custody if they break the law.

What is clear is that we then have to make good use of the time they are in custody if we are going to make them capable to live normal and productive lives on release.

Mental Health is a major issue in prisoner population. 

Freedom comes in many forms

The ultimate freedom for far to many is simply to end it all.