There are too many cases of prisons failing to identify inmates who are a suicide risk despite the presence of clear warning signs, an official watchdog has warned, following a “troubling” 64% rise in self-inflicted deaths in custody in the past twelve months.
Nigel Newcomen, the prisons ombudsman, who is required to investigate every death in custody, said he could not provide a definitive answer for the increase in prison suicides to 90 deaths in 2013/14. However he said the jail system in England and Wales was “undeniably facing enormous challenges” including overstretched prison staff and it was time for the prison service’s 10 year old procedure for prevention of suicide to be modernised.
In his annual report the ombudsman said he commenced investigations into 239 deaths in prisons, immigration centres and probation hostels last year; this being a rise of 25% from the previous year. 130 of these deaths were from natural causes and their rise was explained by the fact that the over 60s were the fastest growing sector of the prison population. Jails designed to hold young men were having to adjust to unexpected roles as secure care homes and even hospices. However, he indicated that the rise in suicides from 55 to 90 in the past year, and the doubling in the number of murders behind bars from two to four, was troubling. He said the deaths partly reflected high amount of mental illness in prison and a rising feeling of despair among prisoners.
“We cannot offer a definitive explanation for the increase, but the case studies and learning lessons material provided in this annual report illustrate that some sadly familiar issues continue to recur,” he said.
“For example, there have been too many instances of prisons failing to adequately identify the risk of suicide posed by prisoners, despite clear warning signs being present. Even when risk of suicide was identified, monitoring arrangements and case reviews were too often inadequate.”
He added that his investigations disclosed repeated examples of poor implementation of proper suicide watch procedures.
This week the justice secretary, Chris Grayling, challenged over the massive increase in prison suicides, said he took the issue seriously:
“We saw a rise in numbers earlier in the year; we saw a fall in numbers across the summer,” he said.
“We may see a rise or a fall in the future. These things are difficult to track. We work very hard to tackle what is a real problem.”