Prison hotlines set up for relatives to report suicidal inmates going ‘unanswered’

Calls to prison hotlines set up for relatives to report urgent fears about suicidal inmates and those at risk of self-harm are going unanswered, according to a report.

Just one in 10 prison safeguarding departments answer phone calls from families worried about the welfare of inmates, research suggested.

Some calls made to the “safer custody” phone lines were claimed to have been put straight through to answer phone, messages were not answered or the numbers did not even work.

Research carried out by charities Prison Reform Trust, INQUEST and the Prison Advice and Care Trust (Pact) indicated most of the facilities in England and Wales are failing in their duty to ensure the emergency phone lines are in place.

This is in serious breach of Government policy which says families should be able to share concerns “without delay” using a dedicated phone line, the report said.

It added: “At a time of unprecedented levels of self-harm in prisons, charities are calling on prisons to protect the lives of people in prison and address these critical failures.

“In 12 months to March 2019 there were 58,000 self-harm incidents in prisons – compared to 26,000 a decade earlier.”

An independent review previously recommended all prisons establish a system so relatives could relay urgent concerns.

The report said:

  • Almost two in five prisons in England and Wales appeared to have no functioning dedicated safer custody telephone lines for families to get in touch.
  • Of these, nearly one in five prisons had no publicly advertised number for a dedicated safer custody telephone line.
  • A further 18% of prisons advertised a dedicated line, but when called the number either wasn’t operational, was not answered, or went through to a general prison switchboard.
  • Of the 75 dedicated safer custody telephone lines that went through to the right departments, only 13 were answered by a member of staff.
  • In total, 62 prisons put the caller straight through to an answer machine. Of these;
    • 36 did not provide another number to call instead;
    • four had no recorded message from the prison;
    • one message said “We may not be able to call you back due to data protection”.

Relatives told how they had to ring repeatedly to get an answer and concerns were only acted on once they involved a warning of “threat to life”, researchers said.

Deborah Coles (pictured), director of INQUEST, said: “The ability of a family to contact prisons to raise concerns about their relative can be the difference between life and death.

“These concerns are not new.

“We hope that the recommendations of this new report are implemented and do not gather dust.”

Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: “This report shows that the problem is a very long way from being solved.

“Lives may depend on the ability to get an urgent message through – every prison should have a system in place and be testing it regularly.”

Andy Keen-Downs, chief executive of Pact, urged the Government to “recognise this is unfinished business” and work with them “as a priority” to solve the problem.

Bosses have been told to “personally assure effective communications systems” are in place in prisons by Thursday, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) said.

They must make sure calls are logged and ways in which families can speak to the duty governor or officer in charge about imminent risks, as well as an answerphone for less urgent matters.

A Samaritans scheme is also being funded, each offender is assigned a prison officer for support and phones are being installed in cells so inmates can keep in touch with relatives, the department added.

All calls on the phones are recorded and can only be made to a small amount of pre-approved numbers, including Samaritans and MIND helplines.

A spokesman for the MoJ said: “The findings of this report are unacceptable and we have already taken immediate action to address the concerns, with governors ensuring that family members are able to speak to staff if they have information about a prisoner’s wellbeing.

“We have robust procedures in place to identify and support prisoners at risk and have trained over 25,000 staff in suicide and self-harm prevention.”

Copyright (c) PA Media Ltd. 2019, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) Centre for Justice Innovation.

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