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Prisons: Death Statistics

Volume 820: debated on Wednesday 30 March 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the statistics in the report by the Ministry of Justice Safety in Custody Statistics, England and Wales: Deaths in Prison Custody to December 2021, Assaults and Self-harm to September 2021, published on 27 January; and in particular the finding that the number of self-inflicted deaths in prison custody had increased by 28 per cent in the 12 months ending December 2021.

My Lords, every death in custody is a tragedy. Although in 2021 there were more self-inflicted deaths than in 2020, the number was the same as in 2019. The number of self-inflicted deaths in 2020, used in this Question as a benchmark, was in fact the lowest since 2012. However, each death is one too many. We continue to do everything we can to ensure and improve the safety of those in our care.

I thank the Minister for his Answer. As he says, every suicide is an occasion of great sadness. That there were 86 in prison—an increase of 28% on the previous year—is seriously worrying. Does he agree that the figures reveal something interesting and important? All 86 were males, nearly all were white and they were predominantly in the age groups 21 to 25 and 30 to 39. So many of these deaths occurred in the first 30 days in prison—15 in the first week. The rate was particularly high among prisoners on remand. In the light of these figures, what precautions will Her Majesty’s Government take to address people who fall into this profile, because it seems clear that a particular group of people is at risk?

My Lords, I accept there are particular risks with people on remand, and with those who have just come into or been recalled to custody. We do focus on those particular groups. However, I point out that, although they were all men, as the noble and right reverend Lord said, that is because there were no self-inflicted deaths of women in custody that year. Historically, we have had female deaths in custody, so the figures also show an improvement because of the work we have been doing in the female estate.

My Lords, one factor that may have contributed to the increase is the extended period in cells in custody due to the pandemic. If that is correct, does it not strongly argue that, if we are to reduce the number of suicides, it is important to increase the amount of meaningful out-of-cell activity for prisoners?

My Lords, my noble friend is right and we do want to do that. We also want to do two other things: to increase videoconferencing, so to speak, between prisoners and their families, as we found during the pandemic that it has been very successful; and to make sure that trials come on more quickly, so that people are on remand for a shorter time. That is why, next year, we are planning to hold 20% more jury trials than before the pandemic.

My Lords, in my various capacities, I have had a lifelong concern for all deaths in custody. Since death by hanging accounts for 83% of self-inflicted deaths and that bedding is the most commonly used ligature and a window is the most commonly used ligature point, what lessons do the prison authorities learn from these statistics and what steps are being considered to take account of the availability of these trigger points?

My Lords, we are aware of that extremely important point. As we set out in the Prisons Strategy White Paper at the end of last year, we have committed to delivering 290 ligature-resistant cells, the architecture of which prevents prisoners hanging themselves. That is in addition to the other interventions about which I have already spoken.

My Lords, the Prison Service is in the midst of a perfect storm, with high volumes of staff shortages and a projected increase in the number of prisoners. How will the Government improve this situation for the people who have to suffer the consequences, both prisoners and officers, including in privatised prisons?

My Lords, I do not recognise the phrase “staff shortages” when put in context. Between the end of October 2016 and the end of December last year, the number of prison officers increased from just under 18,000 to over 22,000. That is about 4,000 additional full-time equivalent officers.

My Lords, is the Minister as concerned and unsurprised as I am that the highest rate of self-inflicted deaths, and indeed of other instances of self-harm, is among the indeterminate prisoners, the IPPs—higher even than life prisoners and getting higher as the period of their post-tariff detention extends, so that the vast majority have done more than 10 years than their punishment required?

My Lords, we have discussed IPP prisoners on several occasions. I acknowledge the work the noble and learned Lord has been doing in this area. As he knows, the Justice Select Committee has been looking at this issue. I have already committed to reviewing the position as soon as we receive its report.

Do prison chaplains keep a particularly careful and watchful eye on the prisoners in the categories to which the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, made reference?

My Lords, prison chaplains do a lot of very good work. They are astute at looking out for signs of prisoners who are at greater risk of self-inflicted harm, but that is something that prison officers are doing as well. We have put in place a strategy to identify on a prisoner-by-prisoner basis those who are at higher risk, and we focus more on them.

My Lords, it is almost seven years to the day since I submitted to the Minister’s department a report on the self-inflicted deaths of young people in the prison estate. Since then, all the figures seem to have got worse. An increasing number of people are self-harming. What has been done in the intervening seven years, primarily to stop young men entering the criminal justice system and to ensure that, when they are in prison, they are properly supported, supervised and advised? That is what is lacking.

My Lords, I am sure the Prisons Minister will be familiar with the document; I confess that I am not. However, with respect, it is not right to say that the number of self-harming incidents has gone up. In the female estate, it is right to say that the rate of self-harm is higher than it was pre-pandemic; in the male estate, it is lower. Therefore, one has to look at the figures carefully.

My Lords, the Minister just mentioned the rise in female self-harm in the prison estate. The figure I saw for up to October last year was a 47% rise in self-harm among women and a rise of one-fifth for young people. Does he accept that this is a failure of the duty of care? What is being done to review mental health services and support for women and young people in prison?

My Lords, without getting into the statistics too much, comparing the 12 months to September 2021 with the 12 months to September 2019—post and pre pandemic—it is 23% higher. On the female estate, which is quite small, we acknowledge that female prisoners are overwhelmingly those who have had significant problems in their lives pre prison, and they are therefore a particularly vulnerable group coming into prison. That is why we focus on the female estate in particular. I am very pleased that, as I pointed out earlier, we had no self-inflicted deaths in the female estate last year.

My Lords, in the 12 months to December 2021, there were 371 deaths in prison, including the suicides referred to earlier. This is despite recent reductions in the prison population. Over about the same period, there were 7,780 assaults on prison staff, which is an 8% reduction on the previous year. Does the Minister think that those two statistics are connected to each other? Does he agree that the key to improving prisoner and staff safety is the recruitment and, crucially, the retention of prison staff?

My Lords, the figures are perhaps connected in this way: we want to make sure that we have as few self-inflicted harm incidents as possible and as few assaults on staff as possible. On staff, we have rolled out body-worn video cameras and we have better drug testing coming into prisons. But I and the Government are far from laid back about the current situation; we want to get these figures down further. But I point out to the House that we have seen some significant improvements in the figures recently.

My Lords, prison officers go through rigorous training and are given significant support. We have put in place a system whereby prison officers who are working with particular prisoners who are perceived to be at risk of self-harm have time in their schedules to sit down and focus on those prisoners. As opposed to having to fit this in among their other tasks, particular time is set in their programmes so that they can devote it to their prisoners.