Self-inflicted prison deaths increase 23% while drugs continue to plague facilities

Self-inflicted prison deaths in England and Wales have increased by 23% in a year, while drug abuse continues to plague facilities, despite repeated recommendations to tackle the problems, the watchdog has found.

It comes as the number of prison deaths also increased, by 6% to 334 in the financial year 2018-19, despite an unexplained reduction in the number of those dying from natural causes, the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) has said.

The ombudsman said it was not possible to give a precise figure on the number of drug-related deaths, but highlighted that “one of the most worrying aspects” of its report was “the apparent ease with which prisoners were able to access drugs”.

Some prisons are “struggling” to stem the supply and demand for contraband despite having “sound drugs policies” and “doing their best” to limit the supply and demand of illegal substances, the report found.

Sue McAllister, overseeing her first annual ombudsman’s report, said: “We continue to make the same recommendations repeatedly, sometimes in the same establishments and, often, after recommendations have previously been accepted and action plans agreed to implement them.”

However, she said she was unaware exactly how many were repeat recommendations.

The report showed there were 91 self-inflicted deaths during 2018-19, up from 74 the previous year.

It meant that 27% of deaths in prisons in the last year were self-inflicted, up from 23% on the previous 12 months.

In one case, a 31-year-old robber, who had a long history of substance misuse including psychoactive drugs while in jail, accidentally set himself on fire while smoking spice in his cell at Hewell Prison in Worcestershire.

The report found the unnamed prisoner pressed his emergency cell bell and called for help but it was 16 minutes before an officer found him.

He was said to be conscious, but unable to comply with staff instructions, and had severe burns to most of his body.

The report found the prisoner had accidentally set himself on fire and “may not have reacted initially because he was under the influence” of a psychoactive substance.

He died two days later.

The ombudsman said the delay in responding to the prisoner was “unacceptable”, and more than three times longer than the target response time of five minutes.

A disciplinary investigation was subsequently opened.

Mrs McAllister said: “It was a very tragic and distressing incident.

“The number of drug-related incidents on any one day can be significant.

“In this case, it was dismissed as just another drugs related-incident.”

She added: “I’m not saying there is a culture that it (the cell bell) doesn’t matter, but I think there is a sense sometimes that it is overwhelming.”

Another prisoner, 32, was found hanged having previously told a cellmate at HMP Manchester (pictured) he was “panicking” about his drug debts to a fellow inmate.

In August, the Government announced a £100 million investment into tightening security in prisons through airport-style security with X-ray scanners and metal detectors, as well as technology to detect and block mobile phones.

Prisons Minister Lucy Frazer said: “Any self-inflicted death is a tragedy, which is why we have trained more than 25,000 staff in suicide and self-harm prevention and assigned each inmate a dedicated key worker for support.

“We are also spending £100 million on improved security measures to stop drugs which fuel violence and self-harm, improving support during the often difficult first few days in custody, investing £2.5 billion in modern prison places which support effective rehabilitation, and have recruited almost 4,400 more staff in the last three years.”

The report found the number of deaths from natural causes dropped from 188 to 180 during the year, although the report was unable to explain the cause of this.

There were four homicides in prisons in England and Wales in 2018-19, down from seven the previous year.

Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust said: “The catastrophic decline in our prisons brought about by successive governments is not just another story about having to save money. It is costing lives.

“A grossly overburdened system is failing in its first duty to keep people safe.”

Deborah Coles, director of charity Inquest, said: “The PPO continues to find the same fatal failures in the state’s duty of care in prisons across England and Wales.

“Yet there exists a shocking accountability gap that allows lifesaving recommendations to disappear into the ether.”

Copyright (c) PA Media Ltd. 2019, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) Phil Noble / PA Wire.