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Our Record Prison Suicide Rate Is A National Scandal And A National Shame

28/11/2016 07:48
Dan Kitwood via Getty Images

When you have lost all your freedoms, the very least the state can do is keep you safe. This is not happening, as over 100 men and women have taken their own lives in prisons so far this year - and the death toll is likely to rise as Christmas is a particularly distressing time. This is an all-time record for suicides in prison since records began almost 40 years ago and it is a national scandal and a national shame.

Today the Howard League for Penal Reform and Centre for Mental Health have published a report on preventing prison suicide that sets out a blueprint for how to save lives. A prison regime should be built around a normal life. People in prison should be able to get up, have a shower and breakfast, occupy themselves productively, socialise and exercise and go outdoors. All staff should have enough staff with the right skills and experience to keep prisoners safe.

This is far from the reality of life in prison and there has rightly been deep public concern at reports of deaths, murders, violent attacks on prisoners and staff and the bloodbath resulting from self-injury.

Way back in 2010, the then secretary of state for justice, Ken Clarke, recognised that prisoners were being overused. He legislated to curtail the power of magistrates to remand to custody and gave the strong message that prison overcrowding was unacceptable. The prison population fell by around 3,000 as a consequence.

Following him, Chris Grayling did the opposite. He closed prisons without reducing the population, so crammed people into fewer establishments. He cut staff by 40% and introduced more punitive regimes that meant people spent almost all day locked up with nothing to do. He destroyed the successful probation service and made anyone sentenced to a short prison term undergo a whole year of extra supervision subject to recall, which is what started to happen, inflating prison numbers and putting adding pressure on local jails. Violence soared, as did self-injury, and the suicide rate started to go up.

The next Secretary of State was Michael Gove, who promised big reforms but was not in post long enough to see them through. He did, however, achieve a consensus amongst Parliamentarians that prison was not succeeding and that prisoners needed to be given a second chance.

The Howard League has put together a campaign plan for the new secretary of state, Liz Truss, that would ease the pressure immediately and save lives. Our 3Rs campaign is asking for action on:

Rules: Prison governors to take responsibility for misbehaviour and to resist referring to external adjudicators who have imposed more than a million extra days of imprisonment for rule breaking

Release: Parole Board to ease people through the gate safely and quickly

Recall: Probation services to resist recalling people to prison for administrative reasons

Whilst the government has promised (yet again) to recruit additional staff, we cannot wait months for them to appear, especially as such promises have proved empty in the past. The only way to save lives, make prisons safe for inmates and staff and help people to live law abiding lives on release is to reduce the number of prisoners.

Once the number of prisoners is down, the challenge is to make prisons work properly in the public interest but that is such a distant prospect at the moment. Today's challenge is simply to keep people alive.

Frances Crook is the chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform

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