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Prisons: Self-inflicted Deaths

Volume 776: debated on Thursday 3 November 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of the increase in the number of self-inflicted deaths in prisons in the 12 months to 30 September, what steps they will take to ensure the protection of potentially vulnerable prisoners.

My Lords, safety in prisons is a vital part of our reform plans. The Justice Secretary will shortly provide details of the prison reform programme in the other place. This will build on her previous commitment to invest £14 million to provide more than 400 extra staff in 10 prisons and the £10 million of new funding that is giving governors the ability to improve safety in their establishments.

My Lords, I am sure we are all delighted to hear of the extra staff who will go into prisons but does the Minister not accept that you would have to have four times the number quoted in today’s newspapers and on the radio simply to achieve the same prisoner to staff ratio that existed in 2010? No doubt he will be aware of the inquest, which concluded yesterday, into the death of Levi Cronin at Her Majesty’s Prison Highpoint. He was a 26 year-old who was sentenced for bike theft and then killed himself. The inquest jury found a,

“series of interconnected system inadequacies and failures”,

including insufficient recording of information, insufficient communication, inadequate staffing levels, and inadequate support and supervision. Exactly how does the Minister think it will be possible to deliver the sort of personalised care and support that are necessary in the absence of better staffing levels, which the announcement today does not seem likely to deliver?

My Lords, it is not appropriate to draw an immediate comparison with staffing levels in 2010. Since 2010 a number of prison establishments have been closed down, leading to a reduction in the number of staff. In addition, we have introduced a benchmark standard—which the noble Lord, Lord Harris, referred to in his own report—to address the question of staff. It is a matter not just of staff numbers but of recruitment and retention. There are wider issues that have to be addressed in that context.

Of course, prisoner care is paramount in our consideration. Indeed, in 2015 the National Offender Management Service reviewed the assessment, care in custody and teamwork case management system. It made 20 recommendations, which will be fully implemented by March 2017. In addition, we intend to give every prisoner a dedicated officer who can engage with them on a one-to-one basis.

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House how many self-inflicted deaths there have been in Her Majesty’s prisons over the past 12 months? Has he had a chance to look at the Howard League’s recent report on this and can he tell the House the estimated cost—beyond the human cost—of every self-inflicted death that occurs in prison?

In the 12 months to September 2016 there were 107 self-inflicted deaths. The cost is of human life; it is not measured in pounds, shillings and pence. Every one of those deaths is the subject of investigation, not only by the ombudsman but by an inquest.

My Lords, some 70% of prisoners who commit suicide have serious mental health conditions. Many should have been in secure hospitals. The ombudsman’s recent report on prisoner mental health highlighted the shortage of secure hospital places, lengthy waiting times and the incidence of avoidable suicides while prisoners awaited transfer. Will the Government increase the number of secure hospital places and improve the arrangements for the speedy transfer of prisoners who need them?

My Lords, a key aspect of our prison reform programme will be to address offender mental health and improve outcomes for prisoners. That is why we are investing £1.3 billion to modernise the prison estate.

My Lords, last week the Justice Secretary proudly proclaimed her intention to appoint another 400 prison officers; today, she says that an additional 2,100 will be recruited. But the service has lost 7,000 officers since 2010, which is 28% of a workforce for whom the sickness rate is 25% higher than the labour market average. When will the Government recognise that prisoner numbers—the highest in Europe except for Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic—are the real problem and adopt a cross-government strategy to reduce the prison population, not least by tackling the mental health problems which afflict 70% of those given custodial sentences?

The noble Lord is right to highlight the fact that mental health is a very material issue so far as prison populations are concerned. As I indicated earlier, it is one that we are addressing but it is not just increased staffing levels that will deliver improvements. How prison officers are deployed and the training and support they receive are equally important elements for any workforce strategy.

My Lords, I welcome the Government’s decision to reduce some of the cuts that have already been made to the prison budget. The Minister will be aware, as has been alluded to, that the vast majority of very vulnerable prisoners are those with mental health problems. In fact virtually none of those people, who mainly suffer from anxiety and depression, gets effective treatment. Last month the medicines regulator, the MHRA, declared that products with CBD in them—one of the key elements of cannabis—are effective medicines. The word “medicines” is crucial. Will the Minister ask his officials to look at the evidence of the efficacy of CBD on anxiety and other mental health disorders? Will he then meet me to discuss a possible way forward?

I am not in a position to comment on the efficacy of CBDs in this context but one has to address the much wider issue of mental health, and the drug abuse which is connected to it in prisons. I will ask my officials to consider the matter raised by the noble Baroness and once I have that advice, I would be happy to write to her.