Prison suicides rise by nearly 40%

New figures released by the Ministry of Justice show a 37% increase in suicides in the UK’s prisons last year.

Penal reform campaigners say overcrowding in the UK’s jails is to blame for the increase, which saw the number of people kill themselves in prison rise from 67 in 2006 to 92 in 2007.

The rise in the prison population, partly caused by an increase in mandatory sentencing, forced the Government last year to trigger Operation Safeguard, housing inmates in police and court cells. Later, more than 10,000 prisoners were released early to relieve strain in the system. The UK prison population was 80,707 at the last count, on December 21 – just 1,048 short of “usable” capacity.

Juliet Lyon of the Prison Reform Trust said: “Far too many people with serious and enduring mental health problems are held in custody which, despite the best efforts of prison staff, can only make their illness worse.”

Research conducted by the BMA suggests that around 70% of sentenced prisoners in the UK have one or more mental disorders, while 7% of men and 14% of women prisoners have a psychotic disorder – 14 and 23 times respectively the rate of the general population.

Rebecca Remigio, Head of Consultancy with Welsh mental health charity Hafal, said: “The crisis in the prison system means that for many vulnerable inmates prison is a frightening and dangerous environment.

“The Ministry of Justice must address problems in sentencing guidelines to ensure that people with significant mental illness do not end up in prison and that courts stop sending women and young people, many of whom have mental health problems, to prison for offences which do not pose a risk of harm to the public.”

In December Lord Bradley, a former Minister of State at the Home Office, was asked to carry out a review of how more offenders with severe mental health problems can be diverted away from prison and into more appropriate facilities. Lord Bradley is expected to report his findings in summer 2008 to the Department of Health and the Ministry of Justice

Commenting on the figures, A Ministry of Justice said: “There is no agreed evidence that overcrowding exacerbates self-harm in prisons. In fact, cell sharing is a known protective factor against suicide. The doubling up of an at-risk prisoner with a cellmate can help reduce feeling of loneliness and provide both inmates with someone to talk to.”

Of the 92 self-inflicted prison deaths in 2007:

• 84 were male (up 20 on 2006)
• 8 were female (up 3)
• 7 were young offenders (up 5)
• 1 was a juvenile (up 10)
• 23 were foreign nationals (up 17)

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