Understaffing contributes to prison suicides – report

Reuters / Stephen Hird
Staff shortages in British prisons are in part to blame for the high level of suicides, a new report has found. Vulnerable young people in custody are not receiving the support they require.

Urgent action is required by government ministers to prevent more inmates taking their own lives, the report warned, adding that each of the 87 suicides recorded in the course of the study was a state failure.

The report, led by Lord Harris of the Independent Advisory Panel (IAP), laid out over 100 recommendations for prisons across the country including ensuring young people spend more than eight hours a day outside their cell and an increase in productive activities within prison.

The report adds that prison should be considered a last resort for young people.

The IAP examined the deaths of teenagers and adults between the ages of 18 and 24 in prison between April 2007 and the end of 2013. Two of the youngest victims were 15 years old.

READ MORE: Deaths, assaults, self-harm: UK prison crisis caused by staff cuts, MPs warn

All bar two of recorded suicides were among male inmates. The vast majority were white.

The report estimates that since the beginning of 2014 there have been a further 22 self-inflicted deaths.

Harris said understaffing was likely to have contributed to the number of young people whose suffering had gone unnoticed.

Lessons have not been learned and not enough has been done to bring about substantive change,” the report notes.

“It stands to reason that current staffing levels impose an additional serious strain on the system,” Harris said, adding he was struck by the “callousness” by some members of staff.

“Each death represents the heartbreaking loss of someone’s son or daughter, brother or sister, parent or partner. Each is a failure by the state to protect the young people concerned, made all the greater because the same criticisms have occurred time and time again,” he said.

Harris further said he held understaffing partially responsible for the deaths.

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Understaffing has clearly been a contributory factor in many of the deaths and it would be of enormous concern to us if current resource levels were made any worse in prisons.

“We came across mental health appointments being missed because there were not sufficient staff to escort the prisoner.

“Current operation staffing levels are not adequate even when the current recruitment exercises have been completed; the benchmark levels of staffing need to be reviewed,” he added.

The Ministry of Justice commissioned the report after concerns were raised about the growing numbers of suicides among incarcerated young people.

In March, the Justice Committee found there has been a steady rise in the number of assaults against staff and other prisoners, as well as prisoner deaths since 2011.

It found the government had failed to plan adequately for risks arising from staff shortages and was responding slowly to problems caused as a result of cuts.

Penal reform groups described the report as a “powerful indictment of government complacency.”

Britain’s prison population currently stands at more than 85,000 in a nation of 64.1 million inhabitants.