Crammed Prisons Causing More Suicides, Watchdog Warns

The number of prisoners committing suicide has risen sharply due to record levels of overcrowding in jails in England and Wales, the chief inspector of prisons has said.

So far this year 50 prisoners have killed themselves, compared with 67 in the whole of last year, according to the chief inspector, Anne Owers. If this suicide rate continued it would reverse the drop in the number of inmates taking their own lives over the past five years. The figure fell from 95 in 2002 to 67 in 2006.

Unprecedented jail overcrowding had led to newly convicted prisoners being detained in police and court cells, where they did not have access to the support jails offered at the time when they were most likely to harm themselves, Ms Owers said.

Around a third of prison suicides used to occur in the first week of imprisonment, she said. The Prison Service had managed to reduce this in recent years by providing extra support to new prisoners, but overcrowding had removed that safety net for many.

Ms Owers told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “What has been happening this year, until very recently, is that many prisoners have been spending their first nights not at a prison at all, but in a police cell or even worse a court cell, where of course there are none of these support mechanisms, and they arrive at prisons already more vulnerable than they were.”

Ms Owers said those imprisoned for the first time were most at risk of suicide, along with inmates with mental disorders likely to be aggravated by being detained.

Overcrowding was also leading to inmates being transferred between several prisons during their sentence and held far away from their families, which also undermined efforts to maintain their mental wellbeing, she said.

“Inevitably, while prisons are operating under the pressures they are, all the systems operating in prisons are under huge stress – staff are under stress, prisoners are under stress and that means the most vulnerable won’t always be able to get the support that they need,” she said.

The prison population hit a record 81,040 this month before dipping by 1,500 because of a government early release scheme. In addition, up to 400 inmates were being held in cells in police stations and courts.

Ms Owers said ministers should use the “breathing space” offered by the early release programme to put in place a system that ensured prisoners got support during their detention and after their release.