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Preventing Prison Suicide – the Howard League for Penal Reform, and the Centre for Mental Health

December 10, 2016

ppsOver 350 prisoners in the UK have died as a result of suicide in the past four years

Thus is “deeply disturbing” and ‘dreadful” for prison staff and families, the Bishop of Rochester, the Rt Revd James Langstaff, Bishop to HM Prisons, said responding to this joint repor.

102 self-inflicted deaths have been recorded so far in 2016, up from 76 in’ 2013. Leeds Prison recorded the highest number of suicides — 11, in this time — and Woodhill Prison, in Milton Keynes, recorded six deaths this year alone.

“It is symptomatic of the pressure on the system,” Bishop Langstaff said. “Staffing levels are part of the issue: they are under pressure, and prisoners need op­portunities to be engaged in pro­ductive and purposeful activities, learning skills and trade; those are things that turn people around and prevent reoffending.”

The report urges and increase in prison staffing and calls on the Government to scrap the incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) scheme, as well as the use of solitary confinement, which it says are having a “detri­mental impact” on the well-being of prisoners. Inmates’ spending up, to 23 hours a day locked in their cells, as punishment, “inherently reduces protective factors against suicide”,.

The number of prisoners dying by suicide increased by more than 50 per cent from 2011 to 2015. The report suggests that, in this time, the number of prison places in the UK was reduced by about 5000, while the prison population had increased by-about 2000.

Staffing and budget cuts have also led to an increase in violent in­cidents and deterioration of safety, it says; investigations into self-infl­icted deaths in prison must be conducted and sufficient action taken.

The crisis has reached “epidemic proportions”, and has created a toxic mix of violence, death, and human Misery”, the chieUexecutive of the Howard League, Frances Crook, said.

The deputy chief executive of the Centre for Mental Health, Andy Bell, said: “We must recognise that many prisoners are highly vulner­able, and that being imprisoned is a traumatic event that can have devastating consequences without the right help and support.”

Prisoners described a culture where, on the whole, distress was not believed or responded to with compassion


Change needs to happen across the system to recognize the influence of the prison environment on people’s vulnerability

Arrival, being released and transferred were all cited as times when prisoners felt most vulnerable

Staff inexperience and lack of training around mental health were seen as a significant factor in increasing risk. Mental health services in prison were mainly seen by prisoners as providers of medication

Wellbeing groups, the chaplaincy and imams, peer mentor schemes and listening schemes  were helpful

Prisons should be enabling environments, striving to be a psychologically informed environment with an emphasis on the quality of relationships.

You are not being heard on issues that matter like childcare, immigration, mental health… there was a lot of issues going on with her [the individual who took her own life] that wasn’t addressed and if you are in prison I believe there should be access to things to address, things like childcare, mental health issues, drugs, rape, and stuff like that”.

“You had this conversation with your kids earlier on and you are not in a position to do anything and I think being in prison, what they don’t realise [is] that as a mother it is a natural instinct to be there for their child and help their child. In prison that is taken away and you rely on authorities to do what you were doing…you are trying to juggle this from a distance over the phone, by letters, by visits and if you get this all on one day and you think, ‘What the hell, I can’t do anything for my kids, I can’t help them, I can’t do anything for them. What is the point?’ If you’ve had one of those days, and you’re behind the door all those things rushing all at once; and then all of a sudden a strong person who had no problems in coping just thought ‘I can’t deal with this anymore, I can’t deal with my kids’ hurt anymore, I can’t deal with not being able to help them anymore’.

“…you can’t just call anytime…and out there things carry on to their own timetable…people are not at home sometimes when I have called…you can get very desperate…”

“…I was told they had died [a family member] two days after they had died…that didn’t feel good…I was then told I couldn’t go to the funeral…I sort of understood why, but I was only told the day before….no one checked out if I was ok…”

“…reflecting back on bare bad shit that’s gone [on] in life… like they come in my cell, 6 in the morning, come here to do something… I been in children’s home, some of us been in children’s home, I’ve seen our area, kids in nighties, you get this feeling…he could do the same thing…”

“…I was in my 40’s when I first went to prison, I had already had a breakdown [before prison], I didn’t know what to expect…I was in a bad way and did consider suicide for the first time ever in my life…I learned to cope, but not everyone does…”

“When I first came here I was simply overwhelmed…”

“When that initial process is over, you get nicked initially in the day, handcuffs, whatever. You find out you ain’t getting bail, court the next morning. So you end up in jail and when that door locks, you’re banged up in your cell, when that door close and I know that’s it now. Once that door closes, everything that was going on, the realisation, you have to sit with it – ‘wow, I am here’. So that for me is when you are most vulnerable..

Tasks like “turning on the washing machine” and “signing up for benefits,”As well as resettling into family life and finding accommodation could be “Terrifying ”.

“…when we talk about suicide… it doesn’t only happen in jail but the process starts sometimes within prison and then your vulnerability excels when you come out of jail because you’ve got this decision making, when you’re gonna eat, when you’re gonna sleep, when you’re gonna go to the bath…”

“I had a long conversation with a girl who had been in for 5 years and she had no help, no support [on the outside], she was terrified, and she came out and 6 weeks later killed herself…there’s very little mental prep for going back to the outside world. That needs to be addressed because it can be very scary”.

Prisoners were concerned about being transferred to prisons far from home as thismade already difficult familial relationships even more challenging.

Increasingly, due to a greater frequency of prison “lock downs”, inmates were spending most of the day in their cells. Prisoners serving long sentences said that they were spending less time doing exercise or other meaningful activities than they had previously. Increased isolation was seen as a key factor contributing to vulnerability:

“…how to deal with your time. When you come  to prison, you are like, how to deal with your time, you ain’t got nothing, you are there and all you have is your thoughts of what’s there, what can be, you don’t know how long you’re gonna get, you don’t know if your family [will] leave you, your girl, all these things going through your mind and you ain’t really got any way to take them off your mind”.

“My main fear is not knowing what happens. You don’t know who’s coming. One guy I shared with, he had this habit, you got people knocking on his door to collect debt. And you are like  fucking hell…it’s alright when you are walking the landing, but when that door shuts at night and you don’t know…

…you have no control over who you are going to be locked up with, who is going to be your pad-mate…”

“…I can’t talk to them…they are in a worse state than me…that doesn’t help me…I am with them all day and I have no one to talk to…”

“You can’t be too open, you can’t open up and let your soul out… you’re in prison for fucks sake …”

Showing vulnerability demonstrated “weakness”, creating “easy targets”for bullying from staff and inmates. Asking for help was often met with “youneed to toughen up” or “everyone getting to know your business”. Prisoners described how this led to them “building up brick walls ” to protect themselves: “Although I was adamant that I wasn’t vulnerable, I was vulnerable and prison kind of disallowed me from feeling that because I had to put on a façade that I am coping, that I am a tough inmate, and you know, it can break you on the surface, on the inside in the sense that you have to build up this brick wall once you’re in jail and not allow your vulnerability to come out…”

People who actually [die by] suicide, these are people who haven’t asked for help, they haven’t called Befriender, they haven’t rung their bell. In the morning you’re not unlocked because someone has killed themselves and that intervention wouldn’t have come at any point. Because people who do want to take their own life, quite often it happens and no one will know about it … they can’t cry for help because they are not the sort of person who can, or actually, who’s going to listen? It’s all building up and they think; finish it…”

Prisoners perceived that they were judged by some staff as “dishonest”, unworthy of help and treated without compassion or care: “I wasn’t once asked are you okay? How do you feel? Do you feel okay? No one ever asked me that. So I guess they never asked anyone that…unless you’re screaming out for help”.

“…when the guy died, the officer was alleged to have said; if you’re gonna do it, do it quietly and make no mess…”

The majority of prisoners discussed experiences when they or fellow inmates had been in distress and it had been ignored, dismissed or received no response: “I was clearly in labour as my son was due and I was on my own and even then I wasn’t believed… I had to physically show them…so if I wasn’t in labour and I was just alone and I was like ‘I feel like I am going to kill myself’, how is that person gonna believe me? Because even when something physical is showing, they’re still not listening”.

“There was a guy in pain in his cell, now he couldn’t talk too much English. The staff came, couldn’t understand him, didn’t try to understand him, knew he was in distress but he put back the flap…man rang the bell, staff came again, put back the flap. Rang the bell, the staff didn’t come again. So my man smashed the glass in the window and stabbed himself in the neck…”

I ’ve met prison staff when they first start the job who are really enthusiastic about the job. I met one and they were like ‘I am gonna help’, but then halfway through their time working they were like ‘it’s the system’. They have to adapt to a system, it’s not just us as inmates… it’s a culture in there, prison officers [be]come hardened

“…the problem is now you might not ever speak to your personal officer…I asked several times, but it was never possible…”

“…there are few staff around now and they’re all really busy….there are also lots of new officers, with no experience…it’s just easier for guys like me to get our way…”

“…there has been an increase in bullying and victimisation…”

“…before, they would know you, they would know if you weren’t really yourself today and if you was alright…now they are too busy to worry about the wellbeing of the guys they are looking after…”

“…when an organisation comes to implement a project, it’s funded for three months and then it’s cut. It’s all about funding cuts. You start something and it’s never finished and that’s a big thing… you build someone’s self-esteem… you’re really enjoying it, it’s not only taking them out of their cell, it’s improving their wellbeing  and it gets cut…

“Spending a couple of years in prison was not the intervention [I] needed…I am the same person and you haven’t protected the public from me because I was nothing… I was naïve and that was the environment I was living in… made me think that crime was normal and just what happens… but when I was sentenced they left my door open because they thought I was going to kill myself because I was in hysterics, on the floor crying… I was so frightened… Was that the best place for me? Probably not…”

The report is online here

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