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Prisons: Deaths in Custody

Volume 704: debated on Wednesday 15 October 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

How many non-natural deaths there have been in Prison Service custody in the first nine months of 2008.

My Lords, there have been 53 deaths in prison custody categorised as due to non-natural reasons up to the end of September 2008. That is 20 fewer than at the same point last year. Of those, 48 were self-inflicted, three were apparent homicides and two were described as “other non-natural”.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that detailed reply and for confirming that three of these 53 sad deaths are reported as having been caused by a violent assault by another prisoner. Can he confirm that that figure is already the highest for murders of prisoners by prisoners for several years, although the year still has three months to run? Can he therefore assure the House that however overcrowded the prisons are and however many staff posts are cut, prisoners will at least be kept safe from murderous assaults at the hands of other prisoners?

My Lords, I want to make it clear that these are apparent homicides. But, yes, the figure is the highest since 2005. The average over the last number of years has been about 1.7 per year, which means that in some years there have been fewer than that but in other years there have been more. We take the safety of staff and prisoners very seriously and are committed to a robust approach on prosecuting the most serious of those offences. All prisons have in place a violence reduction policy which is used to identify the problems that are specific to that establishment and to develop practical solutions to managing violence. Overall, despite almost a doubling of the prison population between 1978 and now, homicides have remained relatively low. Each case is, however, a tragedy.

My Lords, how on earth is the noble Lord proposing to effect an improvement in the situation in prisons when prisons are bursting at the seams—we see an increase in prison numbers every week—and when the Government are proposing, as today’s Times reports, to reduce the Ministry of Justice budget by some £1.3 billion, including, I am told, getting rid of some 3,000 Prison Service jobs?

My Lords, perhaps I may gently advise the noble Lord not to believe everything that he reads in the newspapers, not even the Times. We have put a lot of resources into the Prison Service, and we will continue to do so.

My Lords, will the Minister revisit one of the recommendations that I made in my report on women with particular vulnerabilities in the criminal justice system? Arising from that review and from my previous work as the chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, I met the families of people who had died in prison, and I was shocked to discover that they were even having to consider selling their homes in order to be represented at an inquest. Is it not time that we provided for non-means-tested representation at inquests for people whose children or other family members have died in custody, bearing in mind that the Government are always legally represented?

My Lords, I pay tribute to my noble friend for the outstanding work that she has done in this field. I remind the House that we have, in the first six months, successfully fulfilled all the commitments that we made in our response to her excellent report. As she has asked for me to take back that specific proposition, I will of course do so.

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the contracts between the Ministry of Justice and contracted-out prisons impose a penalty of 50 points if a weapon is discovered in a prison, a penalty of 10 points for a serious assault on a prison officer, but a penalty of only one point for the death of a prisoner? Is that true? If so, what priority does he place on the most fundamental human right: the right to life?

My Lords, the view of the Prison Service is that a financial deduction would not be an appropriate redress for a death in custody. It could, frankly, be viewed as putting a financial value on the life of a prisoner. There are no financial deductions for deaths in custody in any of the contracts for private sector-run prisons, or public sector prisons for that matter, operating under a service level agreement with the Prison Service.

My Lords, how many prisoners who have taken their own lives were serving indeterminate sentences? Has the Minister read the very good report on the mental health problems of people who are awarded this sentence? When they look up their sentence on a computer, it comes up as 99 years. It is therefore a cause of considerable mental distress.

My Lords, the noble Lord and others have expressed concerns at the number of deaths among those in prison for public protection. Since the sentence was introduced, we have had among this group one apparent homicide, four naturally caused deaths and eight self-inflicted deaths. So far, four of the 49 self-inflicted deaths—8 per cent—have been among these prisoners. As the noble Lord and the House will know, following the passage of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008, which sets a seriousness threshold for indeterminate and extended sentences, we now have in place legislation to ensure that the sentence is used as intended.

My Lords, the noble Lord said that my noble friend Lord Henley should not believe the figures that he read in the Times. What are the figures?

My Lords, I declare an interest as a non-executive member of the National Offender Management Service. Although I appreciate that the figures that my noble friend gave could well turn in the other direction all too easily, does he agree that the figures that he gave in his Answer do reflect the valuable work being done by prison staff at all levels, including the senior leadership of the National Offender Management Service?

Yes, my Lords, I certainly do. Prison staff sometimes do not get the support or praise that they require. It has always been difficult to work in a prison and to be a prison officer. It is just as difficult today.