Self-harming in women’s prisons reaches highest level since records began

The number of self-harm incidents in women’s prisons has reached the highest level since records began, figures from the Ministry of Justice show.

According to the latest safety in custody statistics for England and Wales, there were 59,722 self-harm incidents in the 12-month period ending in March – an 11% increase from the previous year.

The overall figure is lower than pre-pandemic levels in 2019, which amounted to 62,682, but the report emphasises significant differences in self-harm trends by gender, with the variations showing a substantial increase in the latest 12 months.

There were 40,934 incidents in the male estate – representing a 1% decrease – but 18,788 in the female estate, which was a 52% increase compared with the previous year.

The rate in the female estate (5,826 incidents per 1,000 prisoners) was more than 11 times higher than in the male estate (523 per 1,000), after a 5% decrease in male establishments and a 51% increase in female establishments.

The report said the “number of incidents and rate of self-harm in the female estate are now at the highest level” since records began in 2004.

However, the proportion of females self-harming in the latest 12 months was 2% lower than the previous 12 months, at 342 per 1,000 prisoners, meaning the increase was driven by a significant rise in incidents per self-harming individual.

The report also showed that in the 12 months to March, the rate of assault incidents per 1,000 prisoners increased by 7%, while the rate of serious assaults surged by 19%.

Female prisons had a significantly higher assault rate than male ones, being 63% higher, and experienced a greater increase in the latest 12 months.

However, the proportion of assaults classified as serious remained lower in female establishments at 6% compared with 12% in male establishments.

In the 12 months to June, the number of deaths in prison custody reached 313 – a 9% rise compared with the previous 12-month period when there were 288. Among the latest deaths, 88 were self-inflicted – a significant 26% increase 70 in the previous 12 months.

Campbell Robb, chief executive of social justice group Nacro, said: “This shocking data that shows that the women’s prison system is broken.

“More women in prison are self-harming, hundreds are being released homeless.

“Most women are sent to prison on short sentences for non-violent offences. This just doesn’t work, with women often being removed from their families, their children, and those that support them.

“The Government must act immediately to fix this before even more women and their families suffer.”

Shadow justice minister Ellie Reeves said: “After 13 years of Tory chaos and neglect, our prison system is on its knees.

“Labour will raise confidence in the criminal justice system to its highest levels within a decade.”

Andrea Coomber KC, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “It may be a cliche to say that prisons are in crisis, but the news today paints a truly appalling picture of tragedy.

“If prisons were a more visible public service, like schools or hospitals, the Government would be under huge pressure to turn them around.

“When prisons are allowed to decay to such an extent that self-harm reaches record levels, while deaths and violent incidents continue to rise, it puts strain on other public services upon which we all rely. It leads to more crime, and more problems for us to solve.”

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “The safety of all staff and prisoners is our priority which is why we train all our front-line staff in suicide and self-harm prevention, (and) launched a new taskforce for reducing self-harm in women’s prisons while ensuring the most vulnerable prisoners have access to around-the-clock care and mental health services.

“While the rate of staff assaults has decreased, we will continue to ensure our hard-working staff are protected through our £100m security investment, delivery of X-ray body scanners, specialist prison dogs and body-worn cameras.”

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