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There were 63,328 self-harm incidents in prisons in England and Wales last year, up from 32,313 in 2015, despite the overall prison population remaining broadly the same at more than 80,000.
This was accounted for by a more than 100% rise in self-harm incidents in male prisons and a 61% rise in female prisons over five years, the Ministry of Justice figures showed.
The NHS defines self-harm as “when somebody intentionally damages or injures their body”, noting that it is “usually a way of coping with or expressing overwhelming emotional distress”.
Acting leader of the Liberal Democrats Ed Davey, who obtained the figures using a written parliamentary question, said: “These figures should shock the government into action, as they expose a rapidly growing mental health crisis in our prison system.
“The fact that self-harm has doubled in just five years is a testament to the failed prisons policy that the Conservatives have pursued since 2015.
“Successive governments have obsessed over being seen as tough on crime, even when it is clear that doesn’t work.
“Our prison system should be somewhere for rehabilitation and recovery, but these figures show that clearly is not happening.”
The number of self-harm incidents has grown in each of the last five years.
There were more than 7,713 additional self-harm incidents in 2019 compared to 2018, and more than 10,000 extra incidents in 2018 compared to 2017.
Over the same period the number of prison suicides has stayed relatively stable, with 84 self-inflicted deaths last year compared to 92 in 2018, which were both down on a five year high of 124 suicides in 2016.
The vast majority of suicides were in male prisons.
Labour’s shadow justice secretary David Lammy said: “These shocking figures raise serious concerns over the government’s handling of the prison system.
“Justice is not served when inmates are living in overcrowded conditions which can lead to mental health crises and, in too many cases, suicide.
“To reduce crime, break the cycle of re-offence and protect victims, prisons must be places of rehabilitation as well as punishment.”
The Howard League for Penal Reform blamed the rise on overcrowding and staff shortages driving people to “despair”.
Andrew Neilson, director of campaigns, said: “When someone is in conflict with the law, we should do all we can to guide them away from crime and trouble.
“But these figures reveal how restricted regimes in prisons, caused by overcrowding and staff shortages, have driven more and more people to despair.
“This would be deeply concerning at any time, but particularly now, as tens of thousands of people are being held in prolonged solitary confinement during the coronavirus pandemic.
“It underlines the need for ministers to ease pressure on the system by reducing the prison population and providing purposeful regimes that give people opportunities to make amends.
“Positive action would save lives, protect staff and reduce crime.”
Prisons minister Lucy Frazer admitted “far too many prisoners are self-harming or taking their own lives”.
Responding to Davey, she went on: “It is one of the reasons we introduced the key worker scheme in 2018, supported by the recruitment of extra prison officers, so that every offender can get dedicated support and have someone to talk to.
“We have also given over 25,000 staff better training to spot and prevent self-harm and are investing an extra £2.75bn to modernise prisons, combat drug use and improve the environment in which offenders live.
“As well as this, we have refreshed our partnership with the Samaritans, awarding a grant of £500,000 each year for the next three years.
“This supports the excellent Listeners scheme, through which selected prisoners are trained to provide emotional support to their fellow prisoners.”
NOTE: An earlier version of this article stated there had been a 33% rise in self-harm female prisons, according to a calculation by the Liberal Democrats. This should have been 61%.
Useful websites and helplines:
- Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
- The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: email@example.com
- Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0300 5000 927 (open Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on www.rethink.org
Useful websites and helplines
Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393.
Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill).