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Prisons: Suicide

Volume 744: debated on Monday 25 March 2013


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how many people have committed suicide in prisons since January 2000.

My Lords, the figures we hold on suicide are classified within the data on self-inflicted deaths. There were 960 self-inflicted deaths in prison custody between January 2000 and September 2012. Annual numbers have reduced from 92 per year in 2007 to 57 in 2011.

My Lords, by last week there had been 982 suicides since 2000, including 15 children under the age of 18. Staff in prisons try to reduce those deaths but suicides continue.

My Lords, inevitably it is true that suicides continue. But there has also been a concerted effort by the prison authorities and those with responsibility for the youth estate to try to avoid as far as possible these dreadful circumstances—dreadful for the prison staff who have to deal with them and dreadful for the families who have lost loved ones. The noble Lord makes the point that suicides continue. I would say that that is against a background of great efforts by the authorities to try to continue the welcome reduction of recent years.

My Lords, any suicide in custody is terrible and a cause for real concern, but when children commit suicide it is an absolute tragedy. Three children have died in the past 18 months or so, as recently reported by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman in Wetherby, Hindley and Cookham Wood YOIs. Can my noble friend the Minister please tell the House what action the Government are now going to take to ensure that these exceptionally vulnerable children—as these were—are not held in young offender institutions but in facilities that are better suited to meet their very particular and challenging needs?

My Lords, my noble friend is right. There have been three recent deaths—the first in youth custody for more than five years, so it is important to keep these numbers in perspective. The Youth Justice Board—YJB—which is responsible for the placement of young people in custody, is working closely with the Department of Health in the development of the comprehensive health assessment tool to screen and assess the needs of young people aged under 18 on reception. The Department of Health has developed a youth justice health and well-being needs assessment toolkit, which is now available to help with the planning and commissioning of health services for young people across the justice system. I should also add that the three recent deaths have been investigated by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman.

Since the instance of two or more mental disorders among the prison population is estimated to be 15 times that of the rest of the population and up to 35-fold higher in female prisoners, despite the assessment that the Minister referred to and despite the fall in suicides, there remains a major treatment problem for prisoners with mental health disorders, particularly when they move around and do not have stable placements. How is this going to be addressed by the Ministry of Justice and how will the changes to the NHS affect the provision of mental health services in prisons?

The noble Baroness is correct. One of the abiding problems of our Prison Service is the need of so many prisoners in the criminal justice system for mental health support. We are talking with the Department of Health to make sure that we can assess prisoners and that those who are in need of mental health support are given it. Since 2007 all establishments operate an individually focused care planning system for prisoners identified as being at risk, the key benefits of which include an initial assessment and faster first response, the provision of flexible individual accountable care, better sharing of information and a multidisciplinary approach. I do not underestimate the fact—

I know it is too long but it is worth getting on the record that the problems of mental health within the prison population remain and we need a more holistic approach to solving them.

My Lords, my noble friend referred to prisoners identified as being at risk of suicide. Can he tell us how many of those there are currently, how many are identified as having mental health problems of any sort, and how many staff there are who are qualified to deal with their mental health illnesses while they are in prison?

On the latter issue I will have to write to the noble Lord. On any one day in the Prison Service it is estimated that there are about 1,500 prisoners who are under care and supervision out of concern for the danger of self-harm or worse. I will have to write to the noble Lord about the actual number with mental health issues.

It must be this side’s turn eventually. I declare an interest as chair of the Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody. Given the importance of properly investigating the deaths, particularly of young people but of anyone who dies unexpectedly in prison, is the Minister satisfied with the level of resources available to the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman to carry out their function and, secondly, does he not agree that it is time that the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman was made statutorily independent of the Ministry of Justice and the Prison Service?

On that latter point I will have to take advice. I pay tribute to the noble Lord for his appointment to the independent advisory panel. It was set up in 2008 and its shared purpose is to bring about a reduction in the number and rate of deaths in all forms of state custody and to share the lessons that can be learnt from these deaths. The ministerial board incorporates senior decision-makers, experts and practitioners in the field. This extended cross-section approach to deaths in custody allows for better learning and sharing of lessons across the sector.