Prison suicides hitting a record high is a “damning indictment” of life inside jail, the boss of the National Offender Management Service has admitted.
Michael Spurr, NOMS chief executive, was called before the Public Accounts Committee to explain a shocking rise in prison suicides revealed in a National Audit Office report.
It found the number of self-inflicted deaths was 120 in 2016 - an all-time high and almost double that of 2012. Around 70% were known to have an existing mental health condition.
Spurr told MPs he is contacted each time someone takes their life behind bars and “the level of self-harm and the deaths in prison are a dreadful thing”.
“Self-harm incidents have increased by 73%,” said Mahmood. “We have had the highest number on record taking their life in prison.
“That is a pretty damning indictment of mental health within our prison system, especially when you consider that 70% of those who took their own life were known to have a mental health condition.”
Spurr said in reply: “I think the level of self-harm and the deaths in prison are a dreadful thing and yes, it is a damning indictment that anybody takes their life or dies in prison.
“I think the level of self harm going up like this is something that worries all of us who work in prisons.
“Every time I hear of a death, which I do - every single one - of course it’s dreadful.”
The NAO report also found that up to 90% of prisoners were thought to have a mental health condition.
A shocking 28% of women inside jails were found to be self-harming, while the figure for men was 12%.
Meanwhile, the volume of psychoactive drugs being found in prisons has been rocketing.
The number of drugs seized in prisons went up from around 2,500 in 2015 to more than 10,500 in 2016.
Seizures of the previously-legal Spice drug went from 408 in 2015 to 3,500 in 2016, and stood at around 1,600 for the first six months of 2017.
Mahmood said: “It’s more than dreadful, it is a sign that the system has utterly failed, isn’t it, Mr Spurr?”
“In terms of the number of deaths, 2016 was a horrible year,” Spurr went on.
The figures for 2017 are “better but not where we would want them to be”, he added.
Spurr said that prison regime changes hit figures but told Mahmood “psychoactive drugs have had a wider impact than you are reflecting on”.
“There has been a huge switch in drug use over the past year to psychoactive substances, which has been a very, very difficult thing for us to deal with in prisons,” Spurr said.
“Those substances were for a period classed as legal (...) and were relatively, easily accessible in the community.”
He added dealers targeted the prison black market “quite ruthlessly”.
Drones were being used to get drugs into prisons, Spurr also admitted, but he said recorded figures on just how much were not available.
Mental health and suicide awareness training were a factor in the rise and just 1% of community sentences have a requirement for mental health treatment, the committee heard.
Spurr claimed that the continued high number of drug finds could mean prison officers were stopping drugs reaching inmates.
“We’re doing a lot to try and prevent drones coming to prisons,” he said, adding it was a “minority way” that drugs were smuggled in.
“It’s difficult because it is about air space and stopping things because prisons are in communities, very often, and what you do without prevent other people legitimately doing things like using their mobile phones etc outside a prison.”
Labour MP Caroline Flint also highlighted problems with how mental health data was recorded in prisons, with the NAO finding that NHS staff failed to enter suicide risk data in a staggering 68% of initial screening records.
The flags were considered “optional rather than mandatory”, said Flint, even though the first 72 hours of jail time were “the most important when assessing whether someone is at risk”.
“The questions are not even being asked,” she added.
Kate Davies, NHS England’s Director of Health & Justice, Armed Forces and Sexual Assault Services Commissioning, said she was working to improve “baseline data” and had been “developing this constantly over two and a half years”.
The ratio of prisoner: prison officer was improving, Spurr said, with human contact said to be beneficial for inmates at risk.
In some jails, the ratio had shifted from 1:30 to 1:20.
Following the hearing, Shadow Justice Secretary Richard Burgon highlighted data showing 37% of prisoners were experiencing a mental health problem, and tweeted: “Our prisons are too often dumping grounds for people who need treatment more than they need punishment.”