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Self-harm in prisons hits record level

(Posted on 26/10/18)


The Ministry of Justice has released statistics of prison incidents of assault and self-harm in the year to June.

Of 9,485 assaults on staff (up 27% from 2016/17), 947 were classified as serious (up 19%); prisoner-on-prisoner assaults reached a record high of 23,448 recorded (3,063 serious); and self-harm incidents rose 20% to 49,565.

Self-harm in prisoners is a recognised risk factor for suicide, and is more common in female prisoners than in males. One recent instance was the tragic Scottish case iof Glasgow University student Katie Allan (pictured), who took her own life in Polmont Prison near Fallkirk after staff failed to act on serious self-harm marks, revealed on post-mortem examination. Katie was jailed for running over a teenager while under the influence of alcohol, despite a social enquiry report and a written plea from her victim and his family asking for a non-custodial sentence.

The MoJ statistics follow a mass walkout of prison officers across England and Wales last month, in protest against "unprecedented levels of violence". A High Court ruling bans prison officers from going on strike.

Justice Secretary David Gauke recently declared: “I have been clear in my absolute determination to bring down the unacceptable levels of violence in our prisons. The safety of our dedicated prison officers is paramount, which is why we recently changed the law to double sentences for those who attack them, and are rolling out PAVA incapacitant spray, body-worn cameras and police-style handcuffs and restraints.

“We have recruited 3,500 new prison officers over the last two years, bringing staffing in public prisons to its highest level for five years, with 2,000 more due to begin training soon. And we are spending an extra £40m to improve safety and tackle the drugs which we know are fuelling much of the violence, including x-ray scanners, drug-detection dogs, phone-blocking technology and disrupting the kingpins who drive the illicit drugs trade.”

Deborah Coles, director of the campaign group Inquest, considers this focus misguided: “Short-term fixes are not working. Ministerial focus on violence ignores the shocking death toll in our prisons and the need for a radical overhaul. We need to tackle sentencing policy, reduce the prison population and redirect resources to community services.

“Self-inflicted deaths, homicides, self-harm, drugs and assaults are endemic in the prison system,” she said. “This reflects a system in crisis, failing in its duty of care to staff and prisoners. At a time when scrutiny on prisons has never been higher, the prison system is failing.”

“There is no end in sight to the catastrophe that has engulfed many of our prisons,” added Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust. “The government has recruited more staff and spent money on security. But so far it has only talked about reducing the number of prisoners the system holds. That needs to change, with action for the short and long term which will bring the prison population back down to a level where safety can be restored.”

Prisoners on defunct IPP sentences and those protesting their innocence are particularly at risk of self-harm and suicide – further manifestations of the toll of miscarriage of justice and wrongful imprisonment.