Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

System failure

Rates of suicide and self-harm in our prisons shame us all, writes Luciana Berger MP

Official data published by the ministry of justice on 26 January this year showed that 119 prisoners died by suicide during 2016. This is the highest number in a calendar year since records began in 1978. This number has doubled since 2010.

 On average, a prisoner dies by suicide every three days. Twelve women lost their lives through suicide in 2016. Twelve of the prisoners who took their own lives in prison in 2016 were under the age of 25. The likelihood of a self-inflicted death in prison is 8.6 times more likely than in the general population, according to the Howard League. So the truth is we lock people away to punish them, and at the same time place them in a situation where they are more likely to die by their own hand.

 Our prisons are in crisis. Assaults in prison rose by a third in the 12 months to September 2016 – also the highest number on record. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons has found that an increasing number of prisoners are reporting feeling unsafe. Self-harm incidents have risen by 23 per cent. And at the same time, there are fewer prison officers, and prison mental health services are stretched beyond breaking point.

 One group in particular is being uniquely failed by the prison system, and that is transgendered prisoners. There have been four deaths by suicide of transgendered people while in prison over a mere matter of months. This, from an estimated prison population of just 85.

 The prisons and probation ombudsman recommends that transgendered prisoners should be sent to a prison appropriate to their acquired gender, based on a multi-agency assessment of their needs, yet this is still not happening.

 Amid this litany of tragedy, one case in particular deserves to be more widely known. Dean Saunders, a dedicated dad, was just 25 years old when he died by suicide at Chelmsford Prison, Essex, in January 2016. I have had the privilege of meeting Dean Saunders’ parents, and to hear about this tragic case.

 Saunders had severe mental illness. He presented a high risk of suicide. He should never have been in a prison in the first place. He needed specialist treatment in a secure mental health facility to protect himself and the people around him. But none was made available. His family was told he was safe.

 Saunders’ inquest jury unanimously concluded that ‘financial considerations’ were made in deciding to downgrade him from constant watch to half-hourly observations. The inquest jury said there were ‘multiple failings’ including a ‘complacent’ approach to Saunders’ mental health. The jury also found an assessment of his mental health needs was ‘not adequately conducted’. This is shameful. The system failed because of financial cuts in the prison budget, and Saunders paid for it with his life.

I have been pressing ministers in parliament, both with parliamentary questions, and a debate in Westminster Hall. But all ministers offer are warm words.

Deeds, not words, are what are needed now. We need a concrete plan of action, not yet another ministerial speech or inquiry. We need proper mental heath assessments, more places in secure mental health units, trained prison officers, and focused support for those at risk of suicide or self-harm. No one should die in our prisons because there are not enough places in secure mental health units, or because there are not enough prison officers to provide round-the-clock suicide watch for those most at risk. These are not issues that are difficult to remedy.

 We abolished the death penalty half a century ago, and for good reason. We sentence criminals to time in prison to punish them by removing their liberty, but we do not sentence them to lose their lives. Now, we must ensure that no prisoner dies because of the cuts and chaos in our prisons.


Luciana Berger MP is president of the Labour Campaign for Mental Health. She tweets at @lucianaberger



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Luciana Berger MP

is shadow cabinet minister for mental health

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